Trial over ‘Insulting Turkishness’ Again Yields No Evidence

Justice Minister says Article 301 defendants ‘presumed innocent’ until verdict.

ISTANBUL, May 28 (CDN) — The 11th hearing of a case of alleged slander against two Turkish Christians closed just minutes after it opened this week, due to lack of any progress.

Prosecutors produced no new evidence against Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal since the last court session four months ago. Despite lack of any tangible reason to continue the stalled case, their lawyer said, the Silivri Criminal Court set still another hearing to be held on Oct. 14.

“They are uselessly dragging this out,” defense lawyer Haydar Polat said moments after Judge Hayrettin Sevim closed the Tuesday (May 25) hearing.

Court-ordered attempts to locate and produce testimonies from two witnesses summoned three times now by the prosecution had again proved fruitless, the judge noted in Tuesday’s court record.

Murat Inan, the only lawyer who appeared this time on behalf of the prosecution team, arrived late at the courtroom, after the hearing had already begun.

The two Protestant Christians were accused in October 2006 of slandering the Turkish nation and Islam under Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code.

The prosecution has yet to provide any concrete evidence of the charges, which allegedly took place while the two men were involved in evangelistic activities in the town of Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Both Tastan, 41, and Topal, 50, became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention for the past two years, ever since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals,
politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Two weeks ago, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin commented before the United Nations Human Rights Council on the controversial May 2008 amendments to Article 301, under which Tastan and Topal are being tried.

Ergin insisted that the revised Article 301 had provided “a two-fold assurance” for freedom of expression in Turkey. The most significant revision required all Article 301 cases to obtain formal permission from the justice minister before being prosecuted.

This week Ergin released Justice Ministry statistics, noting that out of 1,252 cases filed under Article 301 during the past three years, only 83 were approved for prosecution.

Stressing the principle of “presumption of innocence,” Ergin went on to criticize the Turkish media for presenting Article 301 defendants as guilty when they were charged, before courts had heard their cases or issued verdicts.  

But for Tastan and Topal, who by the next hearing will have been in trial for four years, Ergin’s comments were little comfort.

“At this point, we are tired of this,” Tastan admitted. “If they can’t find these so-called witnesses, then the court needs to issue a verdict. After four years, it has become a joke!”

Topal added that without any hard evidence, “the prosecution must produce a witness, someone who knows us. I cannot understand why the court keeps asking these witnesses to come and testify, when they don’t even know us, they have never met us or talked with us!”

Both men would like to see the trial concluded by the end of the year.

“From the beginning, the charges against us have been filled with contradictions,” Topal said. “But we are entirely innocent of all these charges, so of course we expect a complete acquittal.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Baseless Case Against Turkish Christians Further Prolonged

Justice Ministry receives international inquiry about progress of trial.

SILIVRI, Turkey, February 15 (CDN) — Barely five minutes into the latest hearing of a more than three-year-old case against two Christians accused of “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” the session was over.

The prosecution had failed to produce their three final witnesses to testify against Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for alleged crimes committed under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. The same three witnesses had failed to heed a previous court summons to testify at the last hearing, held on Oct. 15, 2009.

This time, at the Jan. 28 hearing, one witness employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters sent word to inform the court that she was recovering from surgery and unable to attend. Of the other two witnesses, both identified as “armed forces” personnel, one was found to be registered at an address 675 miles away, in the city of Iskenderun, and the other’s whereabouts had not yet been confirmed.

So the court issued instructions for the female witness to be summoned a third time, to testify at the next hearing, set for May 25. The court ordered the witness in Iskenderun to submit his “eyewitness” testimony in writing to the Iskenderun criminal court, to be forwarded to the Silivri court. No further action was taken to summon the third witness.

International Inquiry

Judge Hayrettin Sevim, who has presided over the last five hearings on the case, informed the plaintiff and defense lawyers that recently his court had been requested to supply the Justice Ministry with a copy of relevant documents and details from the case file.

An inquiry outside Turkey about the progress of the case, he said, prompted the request.

Seven different state prosecutors have been assigned to the case since Prosecutor Ahmet Demirhuyuk declared at the fourth hearing in July 2007 that “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” had been produced to support the accusations against the Protestant defendants. After Demihuyuk recommended that the charges be dropped and the two Christians acquitted, he was removed from the case.

Originally filed in October 2006, the controversial Article 301 case accused Tastan and Topal, both former Muslims who converted to Christianity, of slandering the Turkish nation and Muslim religion while involved in evangelistic activities in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul in northwestern Turkey.

After Turkey enacted cosmetic changes in the wording of Article 301 in May 2008, all cases filed under this law require formal permission from the justice minister himself to go on to trial.

According to the Turkish Justice Ministry, only eight of more than 900 Article 301 cases sent for review since the law’s revision have been approved for prosecution. On Friday (Feb. 12) the Justice Ministry declined in writing a Compass request last month for a list of the eight cases in question.

Despite the lack of any legally credible evidence against Tastan and Topal, the Silivri case is one of those eight cases personally approved by the Justice Minister.

According to a CNNTURK report dated Dec. 8, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama raised the Article 301 issue with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their last face-to-face meeting in Washington, D.C.

“I think those asking about this don’t know what Article 301 is,” Erdogan reportedly said. “Until now it has only happened to eight persons.”

This month the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized Turkey’s revision of Article 301, declaring that the government should simply abolish the law.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg also warned earlier this month that Turkey is violating Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights to the extent that the European Court of Human Rights may impose sanctions on Turkey over Article 301.

Noting that the Assembly welcomed previous amendments to the law, the most recent PACE report declares it “deplores the fact that Turkey has not abolished Article 301.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

After two years in labor camp, Christian leader released

After two years of reeducation in a labor camp, Wusiman Yiming was finally released and reunited with his family, reports MNN.

In 2007, Wusiman was sentenced for "revealing state secrets" and "illegal proselytizing." ChinaAid Association says the sentence was a result of Wusiman’s Christian leadership in house churches among the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, China. Government officials originally planned to give Wusiman a 10-15 year sentence, but thanks to media coverage, it was only two years.

Wusiman is now back with his family, aged and fragile, but in good spirits. Alimujiang Yimiti, who was accused of the same things as Wusiman in the same court case, is still in custody.

Alimujiang has been arbitrarily detained at Kashi Municipal Center since January 12, 2008 even though no concrete sentence was made against him, and forged documents were used in court.

On October 27, 2009, Alimujiang was read his verdict and sentence. Alimujiang, his wife and his lawyer are still waiting for a printed document explaining an exact verdict. In the meantime, they have been told that the punishment will be severe.

ChinaAid says that Alimujiang is highly respected in the prison. Pray that he would continue to have opportunities to spread the Gospel and share the love of Christ even while imprisoned. Pray also that Alimujiang would be released and that justice would finally be brought to the situation.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Violence erupts on mere suspicion of a prayer meeting.

ISTANBUL, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – Nearly 1,000 Coptic Christians in Egypt are hiding in their homes after clashes erupted Sunday (June 21) between them and their village’s majority-Muslim population over the use of a three-story building belonging to the Coptic Church.

When on Sunday at 11 a.m. a group of 25 Christians from Cairo stopped in Ezbet Boshra-East, a village of about 3,000 people three hours south of Cairo by car, few villagers failed to take notice. Planning to visit local Christians and the Rev. Isaac Castor, the group had gathered outside the building owned by the Coptic Church, where the priest lives with his family.

Castor said only six of them had entered the building when Muslim neighbors approached the rest of the group waiting outside and began taunting them. A Muslim woman walked up to one of the visiting women, he said, and slapped her.

Soon village youths gathered and started throwing stones at the visitors and the building, and according to Castor within minutes hundreds of villagers, Muslims against Christians, were fighting each other in the streets of Ezbet Boshra-East. Castor’s car was also vandalized.

“They were all over the streets hitting each other with sticks and their fists,” Castor told Compass from his home by phone. “Some people were on top of buildings throwing stones; it was like a civil war.”

Sectarian tensions have previously flared in the village. Last July, when Castor first moved to Ezbet Boshra-East with his family, Muslims vandalized Christians’ farmlands and poisoned their domestic animals after services took place at the building owned by the church, according to International Christian Concern.

Since last July’s incidents, authorities have stipulated that only two Christians at a time can visit the building, and according to Castor this was the source of the fighting that erupted in front of the building on Sunday. The neighbors thought he was conducting a prayer meeting and not adhering to the rule set by local authorities.

In the violent clash in front of the church-owned building, 17 Christians and eight Muslims were estimated to have been injured. According to various reports, nearly 19 Coptic Christians were arrested and released the following day, along with the injured Muslims.

So far there is no concrete information on how the Christians were treated while in prison. During the arrests of the Christians, police vandalized many of their homes. Egyptian sources told Compass that police often turn the homes of those whom they arrest “upside down.”

Soon after the clashes, electricity and phone services were cut. Electricity was restored after 24 hours, but at press time telephones were still not operating. All communications happen via mobile phones.

Authorities also imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on the entire village, but Castor said Christians were too afraid to come out of their homes and were living off personal food stockpiles. He also said that a number of families had left the village to stay with friends and relatives in nearby towns and villages. Eyewitnesses visiting Ezbet Boshra-East yesterday confirmed that although there were Muslim villagers outside, there were no Christians walking on the streets.

Procedures vs. Tolerance

There is no church building in Ezbet Boshra-East, and so far the Coptic Church has not sought to obtain permission to build one. Nor has it officially applied for permission to use the three-story building as a place of prayer as an official association.

When a reporter from a major Egyptian TV channel asked Castor by telephone whether he had obtained permission for prayer and worship for the building purchased by the church, he responded, “Do I need to have permission if I was called to pray for a sick person?” He admitted in the interview, however, that obtaining permission would help to avoid clashes and that authorities should grant it quickly.

There are other villages around Ezbet Boshra-East, such as Talt three kilometers away, where there are Coptic associations. Also, official churches are established in Ezbet Boshra-West and El Fashn, both 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Castor said poor Muslim-Christian relations are reflected in the lack of an area church.

“There is no love or tolerance for each other, and I think this is wrong,” Castor said. “I’m worried about the future. I’m worried about the freedom of religion and the inability to build churches. There is bias. It is unfair and unacceptable that people don’t have the freedom of worship. If the current policies continue, the hate will continue.”

The village-wide violence on Sunday harkened to sectarian violence in Upper Egypt in 2000 in the area of El Kosheh, said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts.

“This degree of radicalization is a bad sign for the future of Egypt, when there is so much hate for people who are basically peaceful and just want to pray,” said Habib.

Egypt’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship under Article 46.

“What’s the value of a statement like this if it is not put into action?” he said of Article 46, adding that when government agencies do not promote freedom of worship but instead “become agents of persecution, they make a mockery of the constitution.”

Habib also expressed dismay that a whole village took umbrage only because they suspected a prayer meeting.

“How can private worship annoy people?” he said. “They are not broadcasting it. This is not fair. I’m really annoyed. They say Islam is tolerant, but is this tolerant? This is not tolerant at all.”

Other Non-Governmental Organizations in Egypt said that they expect reconciliation meetings to take place in Ezbet Boshra-East in the coming weeks.

Report from Compass Direct News


Alleged ring-leader retracts testimony implicating suspected link to ‘masterminds.’

MALATYA, Turkey, May 28 (Compass Direct News) – Prosecution efforts to tie the murderers of three Christians here to state-linked masterminds were set back on Friday (May 22) when the alleged ring-leader unexpectedly contradicted his previous testimony implicating a suspected “middleman.”

As the suspected middleman between the murderers and “deep state” elements, Huseyin Yelki, was testifying at Friday’s hearing, Emre Gunaydin – whose previous private testimony led to Yelki’s arrest – stood up and said, “Huseyin Yelki is not guilty, he’s being held in prison for no reason.”

The prosecuting team and judges at the Malatya Third Criminal Court froze at the statement, and then demanded to know why he had previously implicated Yelki. Gunaydin said he did so because Yelki was a Christian missionary.

Gunaydin has also implicated Varol Bulent Aral, a journalist allegedly attached to a far-reaching political conspiracy known as Ergenekon. Aral is the second suspected middleman.

For his part, Yelki testified during the court hearing that he had met Gunaydin only once prior to the murders. According to Gunaydin’s previous testimony, Yelki’s brother facilitated various meetings between Gunaydin and Yelki in which they planned the knife attack on the three Christians at a Christian publishing house. During a private hearing this past winter, a judge showed Gunaydin photos of different people, and he immediately identified Yelki’s brother.

Gunaydin’s retraction raised suspicion among the judges that in recent months he has received visits in prison from those behind the murders who have pressured him to change his statement.

“Tell me the truth, have you spoken to anyone?” the judge barked at him.

“I swear to God, I have not!” said Gunaydin.

The judges requested a list of everyone who has visited Gunaydin and the other four suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim – while they’ve been in prison over the last two years. Further questioning of Yelki failed to yield clear and incriminating answers, and the judges released him.

Lead prosecuting lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz told Compass that records of the jail visits to Gunaydin may be inconclusive.

“These visits might be off the record [unofficial], we don’t know,” Cengiz said. “But we have a tiny hope that we may catch something through these records.”

Yelki, a former volunteer at Zirve Publishing Co., was taken into custody in February on suspicion that he had incited the five young suspects to kill the three Christians, Turkish Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Tilmann Geske, in April 2007.

Cengiz called Yelki’s testimony a “disaster.” Even though it is apparent to the court that Yelki has had many contacts with gendarmerie intelligence, Cengiz said, he was not able to explain the nature of his calls, claiming that he wanted to speak to them about the Bible.

“We are very suspicious about him,” Cengiz said. “Everyone is suspicious.”

As a result of the last hearing, the court also asked for a record of all of Yelki’s bank statements over the past few years to see if they point to ties with gendarmerie or other suspicious activities.

“To us it is obvious that Yelki is one of the links that connects these youngsters to upper levels,” said Cengiz. “But he refused to cooperate, and in my view it is also obvious that Emre was pressured to change his statement, because in his earlier statement that he gave the prosecutor, he accused Yelki of instigating them to commit this crime. But he changed after that.”

Cengiz said that Yelki made other misrepresentations, such as his claim in court to have stayed in bed for two months recovering from leg surgery, when telephone records showed he hopped between different southeastern Turkish cities during that time.

“It was obvious that he was telling a lot of lies, because he said that after the release from the hospital he rested for two months,” said Cengiz, “but according to his telephone he was traveling and very intensively, actually.”

Missionaries as Criminals

An undercover gendarme who works in drug and gun enforcement, Mehmet Çolak, also took the stand on Friday (May 22). Phone records show that he may have been one of the communication links between alleged masterminds and others, and his name was mentioned in an informant letter sent to the court.

His testimony, however, yielded no information helpful to prosecutors. When defense lawyers asked him which bureau of the gendarmerie follows missionary activities in Turkey, Çolak replied, “Counter-terrorism.” The response typified the defense argument that the Christian victims brought the murder upon themselves by undertaking missionary activity.

In their concluding statements, defense lawyers requested that the court conduct a thorough investigation involving police, the army and gendarmerie to establish whether missionary activities are a crime. The judges rejected their request.

Prosecuting lawyers said that the lawyers have been trying to vilify missionary activities from the beginning of the case in an attempt to gain a lighter sentence for the five young men and also to make a nationalist political point.

“It is a very poor tactic,” said Cengiz. “At the final hearing, they would like to make a defense that states, ‘This attack was provoked … You see these people [missionaries] are trying to divide our country.’ They want to say that this is an unjust provocation, and as a result these youngsters were very angry and lost their temper. But this is rubbish.”

Ergenekon Trial

Hearings and investigations of Ergenekon, a clandestine nationalist group believed to have sought to overthrow the government by engineering domestic chaos, continue apart from the Malatya trial.

Two suspects arrested in relation to the case, Aral and Veli Kucuk, a retired general, have also been implicated in the Malatya murders. They were both questioned by Ergenekon prosecutors and judges earlier this month.

Nearly 140 people have been arrested in connection to the case. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized for allegedly allowing indiscriminate arrests of people who oppose his political line and who are not connected to the “deep state” cabal.

Kemal Kerinçsiz, a Turkish lawyer famous for filing court cases and complaints against dozens of Turkish journalists and authors for “insulting Turkishness,” has also been arrested in relation to Ergenekon. Kerinçsiz is responsible for the cases opened against Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who have been on trial for two years for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke openly about their faith.

In the next Malatya court hearing scheduled for June 19, judges expect to hear the testimony of Aral and others who have been implicated.


Although it was expected that the Malatya hearings would become part of the Ergenekon trials, Cengiz said that chances are slim if the thin evidence thus far does not become more substantial.

Yelki’s release, he said, showed that although his testimony tainted his credibility, there was not enough evidence that he is connected to the case.

“My conclusion is that we’re going nowhere,” said a tired Cengiz, “because the powers behind the scenes were very successful in organizing everything. They organized everything, and we’re going nowhere.”

In order for the Malatya and Ergenekon hearings to merge, Cengiz said, the court will need something more solid than implicated names.

“We don’t have something concrete,” said Cengiz. “All these names are in the air … all connections show gendarmerie intelligence, but there is no concrete evidence yet, and apparently there will be none. The trouble is that it’s very frustrating – we know the story but we cannot prove it.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.

A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.

The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.

“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”

A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” said Polat. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.

“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.

Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.

“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”

Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.

“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”

If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.

“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”



At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.

“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”

The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.

Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.

“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”

Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.

“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.

Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.

“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”

For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Draft ‘Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ enters final phase.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 26 (Compass Direct News) – The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.

A standing committee assigned to consider a draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).

The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.

Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.

After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.

The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.

The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.

These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.


Fulfilling Campaign Promises

The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.

At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.

“People expected us to fulfill two goals,” he said. “One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics.”

Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.

Sri Lanka’s Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, “It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged ‘forced’ conversion.”


Banning Compassion

According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) – equal to approximately three years’ wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.

“A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not,” a lawyer told Compass. “Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act.”

Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the Catholic Church’s charity work in the country.

“Such action is a concrete example of the Church’s willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need,” he said. “I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background.”

He went on to assure the government that “the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all.”

On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.

“The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom,” he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that “legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms.”

Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.

“Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Witnesses expected to connect murder of three Christians with political conspiracy.

MALATYA, Turkey, January 20 (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers in the case of three Christians who were murdered for their faith here are lining up witnesses in an effort to expand the accused from five young suspects to subversive forces at the top of state power.

Evidence in recent hearings suggests the April 2007 murders in southeast Turkey were instigated by Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer a coup d’état in Turkey.

At a hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Jan. 16), plaintiff attorneys said they would like to call as a witness Ergun Poyraz, a journalist arrested in 2007 who has been linked to Ergenekon. Prosecuting attorneys said they believe that Poyraz, who has written inflammatory rhetoric against missionaries and accused Turkey’s prime minister of being part of a Zionist conspiracy, was not directly involved in planning the murders but has important knowledge of the players within Ergenekon.

The lawyers said they hope his testimony will help sort out the tangled web of connections and determine the role of Malatya security forces in the attack, particularly that of the chief of police in the district, Ali Osman Kahya.

“In the course of the publishing house murders, Ali Osman Kahya was the head of Malatya security forces, which is no coincidence,” said plaintiff attorney Murat Dincer. He said Kahya had been in similar positions of authority during other political murders.

Other lawyers involved in the case said they are less hopeful, believing Poyraz will only use his testimony as a platform for political grandstanding and propaganda for the political conspiracy.

“I don’t believe he will be helpful,” one legal worker told Compass. “I think he will only put on a show and manipulate the subject.”

Poyraz was arrested in 2007 for having connections to the Association for the Union of Patriotic Forces, a group whose members include military men also indicted in Ergenekon. Turkish media recently revealed that Poyraz had been keeping detailed records on high-level military officials prior to his arrest, according to Today’s Zaman national daily.

The team of plaintiff lawyers has requested Poyraz’s written statements from the Istanbul 13th Criminal Court.

The court in Malatya has sent an informal inquiry to the prosecutor of the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul asking if there is a concrete connection between the Ergenekon case and the Malatya murders. If the prosecutor replies positively, the Malatya court will decide whether to integrate the murder trial with the Ergenekon case.

If the cases are not integrated, then the five young suspects will likely be tried for murder in a matter of months, and all will receive life sentences, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers who represent the interests of the victims’ families.

Lawyers said they believe establishing the guilt of the suspects should be a straightforward process, but Cengiz said that if the case is integrated into Ergenekon, “then it will continue forever.”

No witnesses testified at the Friday hearing. The plaintiff team eventually hopes to bring 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings.


Impact on Defense

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed at a publishing house in Malatya on April 18, 2007.

Emre Gunaydin – the suspected ringleader – along with Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 18 months, are accused of the murder. They were all between 19 and 21 years old at the time of the crime.

The Malatya trial judges and defense attorneys are also adjusting their legal proceedings in light of the case’s incipient expansion from a murder case to an investigation into the political conspiracy. Noting that there could have been others involved in the murder, Presiding Judge Eray Gurktekin quoted an article from the Turkish Penal Code that states a punishment can be reduced if the guilty party is found to be solicited for the crime.

“You should think about considering this,” he said to defense lawyers.

The lawyer for Gunaydin said he had reminded his client of this article, and that they wanted to pursue this legal line in the next hearing.

Plaintiff attorneys won a minor legal victory that had eluded them in earlier hearings: The hearings will now be recorded. In previous months Malatya judges refused three plaintiff requests to record the trial hearings.

In February 2008 an Istanbul court allowed the first courtroom taping of a trial hearing at the trial of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007.


Unearthing Plot

Earlier this month, Turkish police uncovered major arms caches by excavating sites connected to Ergenekon members. Security forces believe the weapons indicated the future plans of the group and their violent activates in the past.

Two weeks ago a new wave of detentions revealed evidence that the group was planning to assassinate the prime minister, members of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and Armenian community leaders.

Older Ergenekon documents make mention of church members in Turkey in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon. Members of those churches were attacked or killed in following years. This month a 19-year-old Muslim in Izmir was sentenced to prison for stabbing a Catholic priest in 2007.

The Ergenekon organization has been blamed for the murder of other high-profile Christians. Ergin Cinmen, the lawyer for the family of Dink, has called for an investigation into the links between Ergenekon, the Malatya massacre and the murders of Dink and Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian priest killed in Trabzon in 2006.

He made these comments in the context of recently discovered plans to attack the Armenian community of Sivas in central Turkey, according to Bianet, an online Turkish news service.

In the last year, police have arrested more than 100 people in the ongoing Ergenekon case, which has been the dominant event in Turkish media for several months.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Video testimony, reenactment of crime scene hints at hearts of killers, martyrs.

ISTANBUL, November 25 (Compass Direct News) – Last week’s court hearing on the bloody murder of three Christians in Turkey’s southeastern city of Malatya paved the way for further investigations into the connection between the five defendants and shadowy elements of the Turkish state linked to criminal activities.

The 13th hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Nov. 21) in the murders of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske presented little new evidence. No witnesses were called to testify.

The court prosecutor and plaintiff lawyers, however, are pursuing proof that there are links between the murderers and Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in recent murders.

A separate criminal investigation has linked the cabal to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government. Evidence in the Malatya case indicates that a local journalist, Varol Bulent Aral, acted as a bridge between the five murder suspects and Ergenekon.

Plaintiff attorneys also believe that Aral incited the suspected ringleader of the attack, Emre Gunaydin, to murder by convincing him foreign missionaries were connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a domestic outlawed terrorist organization.

According to a Nov. 14 statement, Gunaydin testified that Aral promised him state immunity for the planned attacks. In court last week, however, he refuted the claim and said he hadn’t met with Aral.

On April 18, 2007 the three Christians were tied up, stabbed and tortured for several hours before their throats were slit in what Turkish media have dubbed “the Malatya massacre” at the Zirve Publishing Co. office in Malatya.

Gunaydin along with Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 19 months, are accused of the murder. They are all between 19 and 21 years old.

Per their request, plaintiff attorneys have received the Ergenekon file from the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul and have reviewed it for connections with the Malatya murders. It is now under investigation by the court prosecutors and judges.

“We are talking about a room with five guys and three men,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers. “There is no doubt this is first degree murder; a barbaric act. These things will increase their term of punishment to three counts of murder and three life imprisonment terms each, as well as other crimes such as preventing freedom, stealing and others. We don’t have a question about this.”

The question that remains, according to the plaintiff attorneys, is the identity of the real powers behind the bloody attack. Cengiz said he and the court now have no doubt there were greater forces behind the Malatya murders.

“I am 100 percent sure – it is the impression of the prosecutor and no one has doubts – there are sources behind these young men, but we can’t identify them,” Cengiz told Compass.

The plaintiff team hopes to bring up to 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings in order to make connections between Ergenekon and the Malatya murders clear.

“We believe all of them are somehow connected and have relevant information to this case,” he said.

If the list is accepted, he said the trial may go on for another year. “But if nothing comes out last minute, it may be over in three or four months,” he said.


Missionary Activities on Trial, Again

At Friday’s hearing, defense lawyers reiterated their position that the five young men acted in response to missionary efforts, suggesting that such activities were sufficiently nefarious to incite the violent murders.

The prosecution team rebutted the statement, saying that according to constitutional Articles 9 and 24, people have the right to share their faith, and no person or authority can follow and record those activities. They pointed out that the five defendants had been collecting data and planning the murders at least eight months before they carried them out.

Defense lawyers also requested that the prison where the defendants are held conduct a psychological exam of the defendants – especially Gurler – because they were all under stress due to suspected ringleader Gunaydin’s threats.


Revisiting Crime Scene

Those present in the courtroom on Friday viewed year-old video footage of defendants Ozdemir, Ceker and Gunaydin each walking through the crime scene shortly after their arrest, describing how they attacked, stabbed and sliced the throats of Aydin, Geske and finally Yuksel.

A sobering silence prevailed in the courtroom as judges, lawyers, local press, Turkish Protestant observers and others watched Ozdemir and later Ceker walk through the Zirve publishing house and re-enact the murders over the dried blood pools of the three martyrs. In their accounts, they implicated Gunaydin and Salih as the main aggressors, although all accuse the others of participating in the murders.

During the video presentation, judges and lawyers noticed suspect Gurler laughing at the witnesses’ testimonies at the crime scene. In the video, Ozdemir and Ceker testified that they had told Gurler and Gunaydin they couldn’t take the violence.

In the video testimony, Ozdemir said he told Gurler while he was stabbing Aydin, the first to be killed, “That’s enough, I can’t do this.” Ozdemir looked down during his video testimony, forlorn and unable to watch.

Gurler later told angry judges that he was laughing because all the witnesses’ statements in the video were false.

“They’re lying against me,” he said.

In his video account of the murder scene, Ceker described how the five young men and the three Zirve staff members talked “a lot” about religion before the suspects attacked Aydin, tying him and lying him on the floor face down.

Gunaydin confronted Aydin about his missionary activities and asked him why he was acting “against Turks” before Gurler sliced his throat, according to Ceker’s original statement.

In Gunaydin’s video testimony, profusely sweating, he described the repeated stabbings of the victims, re-enacting his arm movements and describing how Ozdemir held a gun at the victims, threatening them.

“I didn’t look,” Gunaydin said after describing one of the violent stabbing scenes. “I’m weak about these things … I can’t even cut chicken.”

He described how while Yildirim and Gurler were repeatedly stabbing Geske, the victim lifted his hands up in a gesture of prayer. Gunaydin also described how Yuksel, injured by the stabbing while tied and on the floor, cried out in Turkish, “Mesih, Mesih [Messiah],” between moans before they stuffed a towel in his mouth to silence him.

After the court showed his video testimony, Gunaydin stood up and told the court he had just gotten out of the hospital at that time, and that that account was not how he now remembered the events of April 18, 2007.

In their video testimony, the young men described how the phone and doorbell were ringing while they were torturing the Christians. Before coming out the door with their hands in the air, they showed police interviewing them in the video how they had disposed of their guns and bloodied knives in the Zirve office.

Gunaydin escaped through a window, fell and was severely injured. On Friday plaintiff lawyers requested from the court an investigation into who entered the crime scene while Gunaydin was in the hospital.

When the defendants were asked whether they knew of Aral’s alleged offer of state protection to Gunaydin or a monetary award for the murders, they claimed to have no information.

“I never saw a check in the course of these events, nor did I hear anything about it,” said Gurler. “I only knew that Emre had a bank statement.”

Yildirim also claimed ignorance: “I don’t remember anything about a check. If Emre had one, it would have stayed in his pocket; he wouldn’t have showed it to us.”

When asked about meetings between Gunaydin and Aral, the defendants said they hadn’t witnessed any between the two. They did admit to having spoken to Aral at a sports complex about a different matter, but they knew him as “Mehmet.”


Foreign Press, Organizations Negligent

Twelve of the nearly 20 private and human rights lawyers from around Turkey that compose the plaintiff team attended the court hearing last week. Cengiz said the primary purpose of the plaintiff lawyers, who are working pro bono, was to create a legal “common eye” that is watching all related cases such as Ergenekon and the murder of Hrant Dink, editor of Armenian newspaper Agos, who was murdered months before the three Christians in Malatya.

But the plaintiff lawyers pointed out that very few international bodies and foreign press members are actively monitoring the case, even though in their estimation the Malatya murders are directly linked to uncovering deep elements of Turkish corruption.

“This case has tremendous implications for democracy and deep-state elements in Turkey,” said Cengiz, who has received numerous threats since the beginning of the trial and lives under 24-hour protection.

“What we have here is a concrete act of the Ergenekon gang and it’s interesting.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Case against two converts drags on; media already passed sentenced on Christianity.

ISTANBUL, November 12 (Compass Direct News) – Two years into a trial for “insulting Turkishness” that has been light on evidence and heavy on mud-slinging at Turkey’s Protestant community, a court proceeding last week brought no progress.

Another witness for the prosecution failed to appear in the trial of Turkish Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, charged with “insulting Turkishness” and spreading Christianity through illegal methods. Moreover, a Justice Ministry answer to the court about the viability of charges under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 had yet to arrive at the court last week.

In the last hearing in June, Silivri Criminal Court Judge Mehmet Ali Ozcan ordered a review of the two Christian converts’ alleged violations of the controversial article of the Turkish penal code on “insulting Turkishness.” But the court is still waiting for the Justice Ministry to decide whether they can be tried under Article 301 of the penal code.

The judge set the next hearing for Feb. 24, 2009 while the court awaits a response on whether the Christians can be charged under the controversial article.

Topal and Tastan are still charged with reviling Islam (Article 216) and compiling information files on private citizens (Article 135).

In what critics called “cosmetic” revisions of Article 301, the Turkish government amended it in May to require Justice Ministry permission to file such cases. Put into effect on May 8, the changes also redefined the vague offense of “insulting Turkishness” to read “insulting the Turkish nation.”

While the court awaited a decision on Article 301, in the hearing on Nov. 4 it did free the defendants from forced attendance at future hearings. This, according to defense lawyer Haydar Polat, was the only progress made by the court; he added that a witness or evidence would have been better. For lack of these, he said, the prosecution has needlessly dragged out the case.

“In both cases [against them], the only acceptable progress is the testimony of a witness,” said Polat. “Then again, the fact that the defendants are free from having to attend every trial is in a sense progress too.”


Lame Witnesses

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme,” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six named gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses in the case, none have stepped forward to testify.

“They will be called in the next hearing as well,” Polat told Compass.

At the June 24 hearing, two teenage witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses have failed to show up on various trial dates, and last week another witness called by prosecution, Fatih Kose, did not appear.

“There is no lack of witnesses, but as far as we are concerned, these characters’ accounts are irrelevant to the truth and full of contradictions,” said Polat. “I mean there is no believable and persuasive argument, nor a coherent witness.”

Last week a police officer from the precinct where Topal and Tastan were allegedly seen doing missionary activities was summoned to court to testify. He told the court that he indeed worked in the precinct but knew nothing about the activities of the two Christians.

Eleven months ago, the appointed prosecutor himself had demanded that the court acquit the two Christians, declaring there was “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” to support the accusations against them. This prosecutor was removed from the case, and two months later the judge hearing the case withdrew over prosecution complaints that he was not impartial.

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial proceedings are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings.

Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy.

Since mid-January, 47 people have been jailed and face trial for involvement in the alleged crime network, said to have orchestrated numerous killings and violence as part of a nationalist plot to overthrow the Turkish government by 2009.

Asked about the chances of closing the case that has made no progress for two years due to lack of evidence against the defendants, Polat said he was hopeful his clients would find justice in the Turkish legal labyrinth.

“As lawyers, we believe that both of our clients will be acquitted,” he said. “Come February we expect that the Justice Ministry will not approve the opening of a public case on the basis of ‘insulting Turkishness.’”


Slandering Christians

The trial of Topal and Tastan has included its share of mud-slinging at Turkish Protestants, estimated at 3,000 to 3,500 people in a country of 70 million, deepening the nation’s prejudices against them.

This legal battle has been less about guilt or innocence and more about tainting the community’s image, according to a member of the legal committee of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey.

The Christian Turk from the legal committee told Compass that in 2006, when the charges against Topal and Tastan first came to light, there were news reports for days claiming that Christians tricked children in elementary schools, paid people to come to church and gave women away for sex, among other absurd assertions.

“The goal was to create disinformation, and they succeeded at portraying Christians in a negative light,” he said.

The source said that this was the primary goal of ultranationalist lawyer Kerincsiz’s team, which he believes is behind the cases brought against Topal and Tastan as well as the delay in the outcome.

“On the first day of the hearings, when the case opened, I told those around me that nothing would come of this case,” he said.

The legal committee member said media created a psychological war against Turkish Christians. Other members of the Protestant community believe another goal was to deter any evangelism or outreach by Turkish Christians.

“It was to discourage the whole Christian community and quash them and discourage evangelism,” said another source.

The member of the legal committee said he believes that eventually Topal and Tastan will be acquitted. But even if they win the court case, the damage from the publicity war on the church will not be as easy to repair.

“I think everything will stay the same, because the case won’t be reported in the news,” he said. “The issue was not about whether these two were guilty or not. When this first broke out it was in the news for days. When it is over it will barely make it to a newspaper corner, and we won’t be able to give a message for the public because we don’t wield media power. We comfortably carry our quiet voice, and we will until then.”  

Report from Compass Direct News