New Evidence Stalls Murder Trial in Malatya, Turkey

Defense lawyers’ absence also prolongs case that court wants closed.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 21 (CDN) — On the eve of three-year commemorations of the murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey, defense lawyers’ absence and new evidence kept a Malatya court from concluding the case here on Thursday (April 15).

Two defense lawyers excused themselves from the hearing, rendering the judges unable to issue a verdict to the five defendants charged with the murders of three Christians in Malatya on April 18, 2007. Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske, who worked at a publishing house that distributed Christian material in this southeastern Turkish city, were found murdered three years ago.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecuting lawyers presented a 28-page detailed request that the Malatya case be joined to a plot called Cage Plan, believed to be part of Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 named naval officers, termed as “operations” the murders of the three Christians in Malatya, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andreas Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos. The aim of the Cage Plan was to destabilize the government by showing its inability to protect Turkey’s minority groups.

Last week newspapers reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

Judges will announce a decision on whether to combine the Malatya murders with the Cage Plan at the next hearing, scheduled for May 14. Hearings for the Cage Plan are expected to begin on June 15.

“If you ask me, unfortunately at this exact moment we are exactly where we started,” said prosecuting lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “I’m not talking about public awareness. In terms of public awareness, of course our contribution is something substantial. But in terms of evidence and exposing the real network, we couldn’t get anywhere.”

Judges also decided to call a new witness in May. Burak Dogru, a convict serving time in Sivas, wrote a letter to the court accusing suspect Varol Bulent Aral of organizing the murders and offering him money to kill the three Christians.

“When I refused the offer, he told me to forget what I knew, otherwise I would not see the sunlight again,” he wrote in his letter, reported the Hurriyet Daily News.

In the last court hearing two months ago, the court rejected the prosecuting attorney team’s appeal that the Malatya murders be joined to the Ergenekon file, despite a police report showing links between the two cases.

Cengiz said he believes that the Malatya prosecutor is missing an opportunity to collect more evidence that could connect the Malatya murders to the Ergenekon case.

“The Ergenekon prosecutor is drowning in the files,” said Cengiz. “This [Malatya] prosecutor has enough time and resources because he is in a position to have direct contact with first-hand evidence. But I think he is intimidated and is just trying to get rid of the case as soon as possible. This case is a hot potato for the prosecutor, and he just wants to throw it away as soon as possible.”

In February’s hearing, prosecutors detailed accusations against the five young men accused of slaughtering the Christians – Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim – and demanded three consecutive life sentences for each of them if convicted. The five men are charged with murder, being part of a terrorist organization, holding citizens against their will and stealing.

“We may not have proved that this case is linked to Ergenekon and other shadowy networks,” said Cengiz. “But I think we convinced everyone in Turkey that this murder was not committed by [just five men]. We may not convict them, the network, before the court, but we already convicted them in the eyes of the public. I wish, of course, that we could also do that before the law. But at this stage this evidence and this file doesn’t seem to me capable of doing this.”

Graveyard Memorials

In churches and at various memorial services on Sunday (April 18), Christians around Turkey commemorated the deaths of the three slain men.

Scores of people came to the graves of Aydin in Izmir, Tilmann in Malatya and Yuksel in Elazig, an hour northeast of Malatya, to commemorate the deaths. The Malatya murders have become a milestone for the Turkish church, which is also eager for closure on the murder case and justice for those responsible.

“For the church, it’s another one of those events in life which we don’t understand but entrust it to the hands of a loving God who we believe in,” said Zekai Tanyar, chairman of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey. “I think one aspect is that the church in Turkey said this does not pull us away from the Lord; we continue to follow Him. It’s probably brought in sort of a depth in some ways, and it has certainly brought in awareness from the worldwide church, and therefore more prayer for Turkey.”

Tanyar said that while churches want to see closure for the sake of the families who lost their loved ones, they also want “the truth, the real culprits and mindsets behind the killings to be revealed somehow. So in a sense, our prayer is that God who is the worker of miracles will work these two contradictory expectations out; a closure and an exposure at the same time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Converts accused of ‘insulting Turkishness’ fear ruling sets dangerous precedent.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Fearing that a court-ordered fine of two Turkish Christians here for “illegal collection of funds” would set a precedent crippling to churches, their lawyer plans to take the case to a European court.

Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal each paid the fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul yesterday. The verdict cannot be appealed within the Turkish legal system, but their lawyer said he is considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling refers to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local civil authorities. Nearly all Protestant fellowships in Turkey are registered as associations, with very few having status as a recognized religious body, and a strict application of the law would limit the scope of churches collecting funds.

Although the punishment is a relatively small fine, their lawyer told Compass there is now a precedent that authorities could use to harass any church for collecting tithes and offerings.

“For now, this court decision is an individual decision, but we fear in the future this could be carried out against all churches,” said defense attorney Haydar Polat.

Umut Sahin, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey, concurred that the case was worrisome for the country’s small Protestant community and could set a disturbing precedent to be against other congregations.

When originally charged, the two men were summoned to police headquarters just before church services by three plainclothes policemen waiting for Tastan at his church. Tastan and Topal were given a “penalty” sheet from security police that ordered each to pay the fine for breaking a civil law.

The court decision to fine them, enacted on Nov. 11, 2008 but not delivered until March 13, denied their request to drop the penalty. The two men claimed they were only collecting money from their co-religionists.

Judge Hakim Tastan ruled at the First Magistrate Court that the two men were guilty of violating section 29 of Civil Administrative Code 2860, which forbids the collection of money without official permission from local district authorities.

In light of the charge of “insulting Turkishness,” the two men believe the smaller accusation of collecting money illegally is merely part of a wider effort by the state to harass and discredit Turkish Christians.

“They are doing this to bother and intimidate us, possibly to pressure us to leave the country,” Tastan told Compass. “They have the intention to hinder church establishment and the spread of the gospel.”

Tastan has spoken publicly over his strong sense of pride in his Turkish identity and frustration with state institutions biased against religious minorities.

“This case is proof that Turkey’s legal system regarding human rights isn’t acting in a just and suitable way,” he said.


Difficult Circumstances

The civil court case was the second set of longstanding charges against the two men. The first involves Turkey’s notorious Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting “the Turkish nation.”

On Feb. 24 a Silivri court received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try the men under Article 301. The crux of the first case – originally leveled against them in 2007 by ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, now indicted in a national conspiracy to overthrow the government – focused on the two men’s missionary efforts as defaming Islam.

Due to lack of proof and no-shows by the prosecution team’s witnesses, the converts from Islam believe they will be acquitted in their next hearing on May 28.

Turkey has come under recent criticism over its handling of religious minority rights by a Council of Europe report, accusing the country of “wrong interpretation” of the Lausanne Treaty as a pretext for refusing to implement minority rights, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

The 1923 treaty, penned between Turkey and European powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, only recognizes Greeks, Jews and Armenians as minority populations in Turkey.

More troublesome, Turkey’s basis of rights for its non-Muslim minorities is built upon reciprocity with Greece’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. This basis pushes both nations to a “lowest-common denominator” understanding of minority rights, rather than a concept of universal freedoms, the report said.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Muslims’ legal action against 1,600-year-old structure called ‘malicious.’

ISTANBUL, January 22 (Compass Direct News) – Syriac Christians in southeastern Turkey say a land dispute over the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery is part of a larger system of discrimination against the religious minority in this overwhelmingly Islamic country.

Muslim residents of southeastern Turkey dispute the boundary lines of an ancient Christian monastery dating to the fourth century as being unnecessarily large for the needs of a religious community. Islamic village leaders from Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli are attempting to confiscate one-third of the monastery’s property, claiming it was wrongfully appropriated and that they need it for their livestock.

Area Muslims also say the land in question is forest and thereby registered as land belonging to the State Treasury.

“Our land is being occupied by the monastery,” said Ismail Erlal, village leader of Yayvantepe, according to Cihan News Agency. “We make use of the forest there and pasture our animals; we won’t give up our rights.”

Among the most contentious issues are the monastery walls built around its perimeter, rebuilt 15 years ago. Village leaders complain in a lawsuit to obtain the land that the monastery has gone beyond its rightful bounds. In August the land survey office of Midyat said it had determined that 270 hectares of the monastery’s 760 hectares were government property, including land inside and outside the monastery’s walls.

A court in Mardin originally scheduled a hearing for Friday (Jan. 16) to determine the legal status of the monastery walls, but it was rescheduled to Feb. 11 to allow the court more time to examine the case. At the February hearing the court will determine if the 270 hectares of land belong to the government or the monastery.

Metropolitan Timotheos Samuel Aktas, leader of the monastery, answered in a report that the monastery has the right to leave its land uncultivated and has paid taxes on the property since 1937.

The state originally charged the monastery with being founded illegally, but it dropped those charges by canceling a hearing originally schedule for Dec. 24. Rudi Sumer, the attorney representing the monastery, said that the claim was groundless since the monastery has foundation status dating back to modern Turkey’s origins, not to mention centuries of existence beforehand.

The mayors of Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli also charged the monastery with attempting to proselytize young children (illegal in Turkey) and carrying out “anti-Turkish” activity.

Metropolitan Aktas said in a report that these claims were groundless and of the same provocative nature that has historically sparked violence against Turkey’s Christians.

“All the allegations are frivolous and vexatious, devoid of any logic or evidence, solely aimed with the malicious intent of rousing anti-Christian sentiments by the surrounding Muslim villages,” he said.


Europe Watching

Mor Gabriel Monastery, founded in 397, is the most revered monastery for Syrian Orthodox Christians. It is inhabited by 15 nuns and two monks and is the seat of Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin Diocese.

In recent decades the monastery has turned into a religious and social center for the country’s remaining Syriacs by offering schooling to children and teaching their ancient language of Syriac, a variant of the language spoken by Jesus.

“The monastery is everything for us,” said a Syrian Orthodox Christian who grew up in Turkey’s southeast. He added that many families in the area had named their children after Mor Gabriel. “Syriacs would give up everything for the monastery.”

An international outcry from the European Parliament and numerous Assyrian organizations throughout Europe arose in response to the charges, according to the Assyrian International News Agency. A member of the German consulate said his country would monitor the case closely, as Turkey is attempting to join the European Union and its human rights record has come under close scrutiny.

Many Syrian Orthodox Christians have left southeast Turkey in the last 30 years as violence escalated between the military and Kurdish terrorists. In the last five years, however, some Syriacs have begun returning home – only to find their property occupied by others.

Residents who fled Mardin province in the mid-1980s returned to find two of their village’s Syriac churches converted into mosques. And the demographic shift from Syriacs to Kurds has increased pressure on the monastery.

“Turkey must protect its Assyrian community,” said Swedish parliamentarian Yilmaz Kerim to the Hurriyet Daily News. He visited the monastery as part of a delegation in December. “There are only 3,000 left in Midyat.”

The lawsuit has the support of a local parliamentarian who claims Christians relished their opportunity to leave Turkey. Süleyman Çelebi, member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Syrian Orthodox Christians had never come under pressure, despite their claim that they were exploited, and even emigrated away from Turkey “with joy” in previous decades.

The three villages that brought the lawsuit against the monastery overwhelmingly supported the Islamic-rooted AKP in last year’s national elections. Çelebi claims that the official boundaries of the monastery were established in Ottoman times but not properly observed by the Syriac Christians.

According to the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Turkey grants full protection to churches, synagogues and other religious establishments to freely practice their own religions. But this treaty only designated Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians and Jews, creating complications for groups such as the Syrian Orthodox and Protestants to open schools and churches.

Syriac Christians claim to be one of the first people to accept Christianity in the Middle East. Their historic homeland stretches through southeastern Turkey, but their numbers have dwindled to 15,000 following decades of government pressure and fallout from war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.  

Report from Compass Direct News