TURKEY: ‘INSULTING TURKISHNESS’ CASE PROCEEDS UNDER REVISED LAW


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.”

 

No-Shows

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

TURKEY: CHRISTIANS’ TRIAL FOR ‘INSULTING TURKISHNESS’ STALLS AGAIN


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

TURKEY: SUSPECT IN MALATYA MURDERS EXPECTED STATE SUPPORT


Journalist allegedly told ringleader officials would not prosecute him for killing Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, October 21 (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers and judges in the case of three Christians murdered here in April 2007 are continuing to investigate whether the attack was masterminded by troubled youths or shadowy elements of the Turkish state.

Plaintiff attorneys believe the first witness at the hearing on Thursday (Oct. 16), local journalist Varol Bulent Aral, incited the suspected ringleader of the attacks to murder by convincing him foreign missionaries were connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a domestic outlawed terrorist organization. The suspected ringleader, Emre Gunaydin, testified that Aral promised him state immunity for the planned attacks.

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

Gunaydin, 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 are all between 19 and 21 years old.

The court subpoenaed Aral for the last four hearings, but he failed to show at each one. The 32-year-old testified at Thursday’s hearing at Malatya Third Criminal Court under police custody since he was arrested on Oct. 2 for carrying a false ID.

Gunaydin said during the hearing that Aral had promised him state protection for the murders.

“He had promised me state support,” he said. “[Aral] should explain this to the court.”

But when the judge asked whether Aral had convinced him to commit the murders, Gunaydin claimed his right to remain silent.

Aral, however, denied promising clemency to Gunaydin for murdering the three Christians. He claimed to only have discussed only the PKK with Gunaydin, not Christian missionary activity.

In Gunaydin’s testimony at an August hearing, however, he described Aral as telling him that he saw a connection between missionaries and the PKK. The goal of Christian missionary work in Turkey, Aral reportedly said, was “to destroy the motherland.”

Recent high-level political events in Turkey, however, show that the plausibility of his alleged promise for state protection to Gunaydin and the other four youths may not be unfounded.

In January police uncovered and started arresting members of Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in recent murders. The indictment has accused 86 suspects, 70 of which are in custody.

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 Aral acted as a bridge between the five murder suspects and Ergenekon.

In January Malatya police found Aral’s diary, which mentioned multiple people indicted in Ergenekon and contact information for Kemal Kerincsiz, an ultranationalist lawyer who had charged two Turkish Christians for “insulting Islam.” The court case of Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal has been underway for two years.

In his diary Aral mentioned the duty to “protect the state’s honor.” His frequent comments to media have also raised eyebrows, such as his recent statement that, “I can’t stand that patriots like Veli Kucuk are in prison.”

Kucuk is a retired major general arrested in the Ergenekon case. He has been indicted for threatening Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated in January 2007, and is believed to be a key player in the network, according to Turkish national daily Today’s Zaman.

When Judge Eray Gurtekin asked Aral why his diary mentioned these people, Aral claimed he “received information” and wrote their names down to think about them later. He claimed to be merely compiling information in order to write a book about Ergenekon.

The witness was more elusive when he was asked if he knew Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers.

Aral merely said he didn’t know Cengiz. But for the last few months Aral has talked to many journalists in the country’s major cities, trying to prove that Cengiz was the leader of a secret resistance group established by the government responsible for the murders of Hrant Dink, Father Andrea Santoro (a Catholic priest who was killed in 2006), and the Malatya murders.

Judge Gurtekin then asked Aral if he had worked as a police informant for either the police or gendarmerie. He answered, “I have many police and military officers among my friends. We drink tea and talk with each other.”

 

Dark Connections

Plaintiff attorneys have seen some progress in the Malatya trial, which has continued for nearly a year. But they believe it will take time to get to the root of the crime, which they say runs very deep.

“It has become very clear for everyone that there is this very dark, complex, sophisticated web of relations behind the scenes, but we can’t pick them out or prove them beyond reasonable doubt for the time being,” said Cengiz. “We are stuck. Everyone sees that some of the witnesses are not witnesses at all – they are either aiding and abetting or a member of the gang. Some people like Bulent Aral are there to create a cloak of confusion that you can’t get past.”

Aral was arrested last year while in possession of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he claims he had confiscated from a 10-year-old, and was arrested while en route to a police station to hand over the gun. A week before the three Christians were killed in 2007, Gunaydin visited Aral in prison.

Plaintiff attorneys said that as defendant Abuzer Yildirim and Aral were leaving the courtroom after the court’s adjournment, they noticed Aral tell Yildirim face-to-face, “Look around carefully. This may be the last time you see these things before you die.”

The plaintiff attorneys said that Aral may not have been threatening him with this statement, but instead warning him about other threats or possible dangers stemming from the case, according to Haberturk news Website.

Following the last testimony, five knives, two guns and blood-stained clothes of the suspects found at the crime scene were shown to the court.

The plaintiff attorneys requested the Ergenekon file from the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul on Aug. 12. They have not yet received the file, but hope to find a relationship between the Malatya and Ergenekon investigations and possibly combine them.

The next hearing is scheduled in Malatya for Nov. 21.  

Report from Compass Direct News