Turkey Arrests 20 Allegedly Linked to Malatya Murders

Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.

ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.

Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.

“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”

Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.

Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.

A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.

“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”

The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.

Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.

“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.

“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”

At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”

“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.

Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.

She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.

After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.

The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.

Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.

“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Face Harassment; Murder Trial Stalls

Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.

Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.

In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.

Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such

“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”   

About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.

Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.

TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.


Malatya Trial Stalled

In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.

The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.

“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”

The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.

The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.

“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”

The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”

Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.

The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.

Report from Compass Direct News

Threat of Return to Hindu State in Nepal Looms

With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.

Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.

Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.

There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.

“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”

The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.

“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”

Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.

“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”

With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.

Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.

Effectively Hindu

Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.

Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.

“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”

Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.

There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.

Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.

The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.

“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.

The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.

In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”

It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”

Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.

“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.

“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”

Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.

The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.

The situation, even now, remained unchanged.

“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”

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