Armed militants fire into crowd, seriously injuring three; jizye tax imposed in Orakzai.

ISTANBUL, April 27 (Compass Direct News) – As Taliban control hits pockets of Pakistan and threatens the nation’s stability, Christians worry their province could be the next to fall under Islamic law.

Violence on Tuesday night and Wednesday (April 21-22) near the port city of Karachi – some 1,000 kilometers (nearly 700 miles) from the Swat Valley, where the government officially allowed the Taliban to establish Islamic law this month – heightened fears. Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

As members of the congregation erased the graffiti, armed men intervened to stop them. Soon 30-40 others arrived as support and began to fire indiscriminately at the crowd, leaving several injured. Among those seriously injured were three Christians, including a child, according to a report by advocacy group Minorities Concern of Pakistan: Emrah Masih, 35, Qudoos Masih, 30, and Irfan Masih, 11. A Pashtun named Rozi Khan was also among the injured.

Policemen and military forces arrested seven suspects at the scene and recovered an arms cache of semi-automatic pistols and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The Taliban is an insurgent movement of primarily Pashtun Islamists ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistani media portrayed the Karachi violence as a sectarian clash between Christians and Pashtuns that escalated into a gunfire exchange and that Christians committed arson attacks. The Daily Times claimed that the Christians protested the graffiti by setting ablaze some shops, including roadside stalls and pushcarts.

But a legal advocacy worker told Compass that police scattered the Christians when they began their protests and stood by as a Taliban-assembled mob attacked them.

“The Christians do not have guns, they do not have weapons, but only a little bit of property and the few things in their houses,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “They are poor and have no courage to fight them. How can Christians, who lived like animals here, stand against them?”

Johnson said that local Christians, terrified over recent Talibanization campaigns, may not pursue legal action against the arrested men, although Asia News reported that Qudoos Masih filed an initial report at the Sarjani town police station. The Christians fear inciting violence by taking a stand against elements connected with the Taliban, Johnson said.

Eyewitnesses to the attacks against Christians in Karachi said they were religiously motivated. A representative of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) regional party told Compass that after firing on the crowd, the Taliban went through Christian houses, ransacked them and burned one down. He said they also burned Bibles and beat women on the street. Reports of two execution-style killings of Christians could not be verified.

Karachi police and administration reportedly claimed that the Karachi attack came not from the Taliban but from Pashtuns who resettled in the area from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The MQM, however, has long suspected Taliban presence in Karachi.


Expanded Campaign of Violence

Local officials are worried that the Taliban is making inroads into Karachi, the financial center of Pakistan, in the same way it did within the Swat Valley in the NWFP.

In mid-February Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold ruled by sharia under a “peace agreement,” but instead of honoring the accord with an end to bombings and other violence, the Islamic militants have expanded their campaign to outlying areas and other parts of the country. Of the 500 Christians remaining in Swat Valley when sharia was initially established in February, many have migrated to other provinces while those who stayed live in fear of a rise in violence against non-Muslims.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Area adjacent to the NWFP, the Taliban this month demanded a jizye payment of 50 million rupees (US$625,000) from Sikhs living in Orakzai Agency. Those who did not flee paid a combined total of 2 million rupees (US$25,000), and Christians worry they could be next. Relegating non-Muslims to dhimmi status – the second-class state of those subject to an Islamic administration and its jizye tax in exchange for protection – is part of the writings of the founder of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), one of Pakistan’s main Islamic parties with ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan and similar parties in Bangladesh and Egypt.

Last week the Taliban effectively took control of Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, and it has begun battling government soldiers in Malakland Agency.

Non-Muslims make up 3 percent of the population in the Muslim-majority nation of 176 million. They are frequently marginalized, particularly in the sharia-influenced justice system that gives precedence to Muslims. But they fear Taliban infiltration will accelerate their marginalization in a stealth manner, as they cannot tell the difference between a Taliban fighter and a community member.

“We cannot identify who is a Taliban fighter because there are an uncountable number of people who have a beard and wear a turban,” Johnson said. “We cannot recognize who belongs to the Taliban because they penetrate every corner of Pakistan.”

The MQM official in Karachi said many of the Christians in the area are poor and illiterate. They are on the lower rungs of the social ladder and have nobody to protect their interests except for the church.

“Nobody is going to help them,” he said. “The church can help them get education, but they are not also able to give them [security] help.”

His statements were backed by MQM leader Altaf Hussein, who called on Pakistan’s Interior Ministry to take emergency preventative measures to ensure the safety of minorities against the “rising activities of armed lawless elements,” according to The News International.

A local teacher said that during the looting police only stood by, making no effort to stop the Taliban as they ransacked Christian houses.

“Rather than stopping them, they allowed them to burn the houses, [harass] the Christian women and burn Bibles,” he said.

Although Pakistani politicians and security forces have said openly in recent weeks that the Taliban was closing in on Islamabad and could trigger a government collapse, they claimed the pro-Taliban slogans in Karachi were scrawled not by the Taliban but conspirators wanting to incite violence.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an Islamist party leader, said talk of the Talibanization of Karachi was merely a ruse to allow the United States to invade Pakistan as it had done to Afghanistan.

“Those raising this slogan are trying to create another Osama for America in this part of the world,” he said, according to The News International.

The Karachi attacks were part of escalating violence throughout the country. The government informed the National Assembly on April 20 that 1,400 people had been killed in terrorist attacks in the last 15 months.

Report from Compass Direct News


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


Crime scene video sobers courtroom; accused killers either grin or grow sick.

MALATYA, Turkey, August 22 (Compass Direct News) – The five young Turkish men accused of torturing and killing three Christians in Malatya last year may have been incited by members of a vast political conspiracy allegedly responsible for multiple murders in recent years.

The 10th hearing on the murder of three Christians at a publishing house in southeast Turkey 16 months ago took place yesterday (Aug. 21) at the Malatya Third Criminal Court. Plaintiff attorneys requested the case be integrated with an investigation into Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in various murders.

In January police uncovered and started arresting members of Ergenekon. A criminal investigation has linked them to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed on April 18, 2007 in the southeastern Turkish city of Malatya.

Evidence suggests Emre Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader of the murderers, was in contact with at least two people connected to Ergenekon: a retired brigadier general and a journalist. The latter, Varol Bulent Aral, told Gunaydin he saw a connection between missionaries and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) terrorist organization.

At yesterday’s hearing, presiding Judge Eray Gurtekin asked Gunaydin if he knew a former general and a political leader indicted in Ergenekon.

Gurtekin showed Gunaydin a note he had written last year while recovering in hospital from injuries he sustained after jumping out a third-story window while trying to escape police after the murder. His note said, “Don’t tell Levent.”

When the judge asked who this was, Gunaydin replied that he didn’t remember. Pressing further, Gurtekin asked him if he knew Levent Ersoz, a retired brigadier general indicted in the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, or Levent Temiz, former head of the ultranationalist Ulku Ocaklari youth organization.

Gunaydin said he didn’t know the two men. Metin Dogan, a witness at the last hearing, said he and Gunaydin were involved in Ulku Ocaklari together. Gunaydin has denied knowing Dogan or having any involvement in the group.

Neither the widows of Aydin and Geske nor parents of Yuksel attended yesterday’s hearing. The martyred Christians left behind five children and Yuksel’s fiancée.

On the morning of the trial, Zaman national daily reported on further connections between the Malatya killings and Ergenekon. Gunaydin had been in contact with local journalist Aral, who had connections with Ergenekon and was called as a witness for the July 4 hearing.

Aral was arrested in another Turkish city while in possession of a Kalashnikov assault rifle. A week before the three Christians were killed in 2007, Gunaydin visited Aral in prison.

In January Malatya police found Aral’s diary, containing contact information for ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who was indicted in the Ergenekon affair. Previously Kerincsiz had pressed charges against two Turkish Christians for “insulting Islam” and charged Armenian journalist Hrant Dink with insulting Turkishness. Dink was assassinated in January 2007.

Gunaydin said in a statement that Aral told him that there was a connection between the PKK and foreign missionaries. The goal of Christian missionary work in Turkey, Aral said, was to destroy the motherland.

“I asked him if someone shouldn’t stop this,” Gunaydin said. “He told me to get up and stop this. When I asked him how this will be done, he said, ‘We will provide state support.’”


Graphic Footage

Possible evidence of such state support for the murders was shown at the most recent hearing, when plaintiff lawyers showed police video footage of the crime scene taken hours after the murder on April 18.

The footage suggests someone tampered with evidence at the crime scene. According to the video, a handgun found at the crime scene was too large to fit into its gun box, indicating weapons had been swapped.

“This shows there is someone protecting these suspects,” said plaintiff attorney Murat Dincer. “If someone in the investigation changed the guns, then there is another force behind the scenes.”

Police could be overheard in the audio track arguing whether the guns were the same or not. Dincer requested this footage be replayed so the court could hear the police having the argument. The court has requested an expert witness to testify about the guns for the next hearing.

The court has not allowed release of any copies of this footage, and even attorneys were allowed to watch it only under supervision.

The hearing produced emotional moments for the victims’ acquaintances. Close-up shots of the victims showed their bodies mutilated and lying in pools of their own blood.

While some in the court teared up at the close-ups of the victims, suspects Gunaydin and Salih Gurler were seen grinning at times during the display of the footage.

Some of the five suspects looked away from the video during the gruesome scenes. The judge then ordered them to keep watching: “It’s because of you we are watching this. Look at it.”

Defendant Abuzer Yildirim turned around and told the judge he could not continue to watch because his stomach couldn’t handle it.


Absent Witnesses

Only one of eight witnesses summoned to testify attended yesterday’s hearing. Huseyin Yelki, 34, testified he was working part-time at Zirve’s Malatya office when Gunaydin and two other men visited there, about a month or six weeks before the murders, he recalled.

Gunaydin introduced himself, saying he wanted to meet Necati Aydin. But when Yelki telephoned Aydin and learned he would be coming to the office an hour later, the three men left. Yelki, who walks with a cane, said he never saw them again and could not remember their faces.

According to the murder suspects’ testimonies, Gunaydin had told them that it would be easy to get information from a man with a lame leg who worked at the Zirve office.

Despite previous court orders for police to track down and force three of the witnesses to appear, the court was informed that no current addresses had been located for any of the seven absent witnesses.


Ergenekon Connection

The court has requested the file on the Ergenekon investigation.

After the hearing, attorney Ozkan Yucel said the plaintiff team has requested the entire indictment file from the Ergenekon case in Istanbul on a DVD. The next hearing will be on Sept. 12.

There has been a wave of attacks and threats against Christians across Turkey in recent years, and documents suggest these events are related.

In the first Malatya hearing in November, plaintiff attorneys presented a surprise demand to broaden the prosecution from an isolated case of terrorism to the criminal code statutes against religious “genocide.”

In a January hearing, formal requests to remove 16 files of information about the religious activities of the three Christians and to charge the perpetrators with “religious genocide” were denied.

Confiscated Ergenekon files show the group apparently tracked even the smallest actions of Christians in Turkey. A Jan. 7, 2005 statement made cryptic mention of church members in Izmir, Mersin, and Trabzon: “Those who have recently accepted Christianity show increasing devotion to their own rules,” the file said, according to Radikal national daily on Aug. 14.

Members of those churches have been attacked or killed in following years. In February 2006 a youth shot and killed Father Andrea Santoro in the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon. The same year, a 19-year-old man stabbed Father Adriano Franchini in Izmir.

Although yesterday’s hearing avoided the theatrics of the previous hearing on July 4, when defense attorneys tried to link Malatya’s Christian missionaries with the PKK, there was one hot outburst when a defense attorney asked why there were so many foreigners living in Malatya. The plaintiff attorneys then rose to their feet in protest, declaring the question irrelevant to the case.

Plaintiff lawyer Ozkan Yucel spoke to the Turkish press outside the courthouse after the hearing. He said the plaintiff lawyers wanted the Ergenekon file to find a relationship between the Malatya and Ergenekon investigations and possibly combine them.

“I am of the opinion this will be combined with Ergenekon investigation,” he said. “We may request they be combined at the next hearing.”  

Report from Compass Direct News