Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”


Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Witnesses indicate ringleader wasn’t only one planning to kill three Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Testimony in the murder case of three Christians here indicates the attack was premeditated for at least two suspects, despite the defense team’s insistence that the killers acted spontaneously.

The 11th hearing on the murders at a publishing house in this southeastern city 17 months ago took place Friday (Sept. 12) at the Malatya Third Criminal Court. Two Turkish Christians who converted from Islam, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed on April 18, 2007.

Mahmut Kudas, one of the three witnesses called to testify, said murder suspect Cuma Ozdemir met with him the week before the murder and said that he was going to tell him something important.

“If you don’t hear from me by Friday, someone will call you and tell you the location of a letter. Get the letter and give it to the person who called you,” Ozdemir said to Kudas on April 13, 2007, the Friday before the attack on the following Wednesday, according to his testimony.

When Kudas asked him why, Ozdemir replied, “There are 49 house churches and priests in Malatya.” When Kudas asked him what he was thinking of doing, he replied, “Those who know this will die. I will become a martyr.”

Kudas, 20, lived in the same dormitory as many of the other suspects. When he asked Ozdemir if Emre Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader of the murders, was the leader of this operation, Cuma Ozdemir nodded in confirmation.

The five accused murderers are Hamit Ceker, Cuma Ozdemir, Abuzer Yildirim, Salih Gurler and Emre Gunaydin. They were all between the ages of 19 and 21 at the time of the murders.

Another witness, Mehmet Uludag, a former classmate of some of the suspects, said he also spoke with Ozdemir before the murders. Uludag said Ozdemir told him that he and two others were about to do something big.

Ozdemir then instructed Uludag, 20, that he would leave a letter at an undisclosed location and that he must call Muammer Ozdemir – who is expected to testify at a future hearing – to learn the whereabouts of the letter. The two must then deliver the letter to the police or the gendarme, Cuma Ozdemir told Uludag.

“If I come through, I will explain all this to you. If I am lost, then read the letter. It will explain everything,” he reportedly told Uludag.

On the day of the murders, Uludag sent Muammer Ozdemir a text message asking for the whereabouts of the letter. The latter told him it was under a bed in the dormitory, but Uludag did not retrieve it since he was questioned by the police the same day.


Aiding Murderers

The letters in question are similar to those mentioned by suspect Hamit Ceker in a previous hearing. He said in his interrogation that the night before the murder, he and another of the defendants had sat in the hall of their dormitory, writing a letter to their families in case things did not turn out well.

Both Kudas and Uludag said they did not report this suspicious behavior, as they believed Cuma Ozdemir was exaggerating rather than engaged in a conspiracy.

In forthcoming hearings the plaintiff attorneys will try to accuse these witnesses of aiding and abetting the murderers, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, leading the team of plaintiff lawyers.

“They knew what was going to happen, so they should have talked to prosecutors or police officers,” Cengiz told Compass, criticizing the witnesses for withholding information.

The third person to testify in the trial was Gunaydin’s former girlfriend, Turna Isikli, 21. She said the day before the murder Gunaydin sent her a text message and said, “Tomorrow I will be interrogated.” She said she thought this referred to a meeting with his father about issues related to school.


Accusations, Tempers Flare

The testimonies indicate that at least two of the suspects planned the murder of the three Christians, contradicting their earlier statements that they came to the publishing house with no intent to kill the evangelicals.

In a Jan. 14 hearing, accused killer Hamit Ceker claimed the group of five men only planned to seize incriminating evidence against the Christians, although they carried guns, rope, knives and a pair of plastic gloves.

In a subsequent hearing on June 10, the five men declared their innocence and blamed one or more of the others. Most of the blame fell on suspected ringleader Gunaydin, whom the suspects claimed murdered the three Christians. The other four suspects said they only obeyed him for fear of his alleged police and mafia connections.

Gunaydin has claimed that all five planned to raid the office together. In a May 12 hearing he implicated suspect Salih Gurler for leading the attacks, saying violence exploded when Aydin slandered Islam and said Jesus was God.

Tensions flared at one point in Friday’s hearing when Gunaydin noticed one of the plaintiff attorneys drinking from a water bottle. Pious Muslims are currently observing the month of Ramadan in which eating and drinking are prohibited from sunrise to sunset.

“This is the month of Ramadan and we are fasting, but you are drinking water across from us,” Gunaydin said. “Show a little respect.”

“What shall we do, make them fast?” responded judge Eray Gurtekin, according to Sabah national daily.

Gunaydin also raised eyebrows when he stood up and lashed out at plaintiff attorney Ozkan Yucel when his cellular phone rang in the courtroom. He said, “Turn off your phone, you are disturbing my concentration.”

The case took an important twist in the 10th hearing on Aug. 21, when prosecuting attorneys suggested that shadowy elements deep within the Turkish state orchestrated the murder.

In the last hearing 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 these members to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government.

Ergenekon was not mentioned at Friday’s hearing because the plaintiff lawyers have not received the investigation file from Istanbul. They requested the file at the Aug. 21 hearing in Malatya.

The far-reaching conspiracy and its connection to the Malatya case, however, has had a positive impact on the criminal proceedings, plaintiff lawyers say: The judges are far more cooperative than the beginning of the case, in which they frequently rebuffed demands from the prosecution for evidence and witnesses.

“This last hearing was the first time the court accepted nearly all demands from us,” said plaintiff attorney Cengiz. “They are taking the case much more seriously now because there are many indications this is not the work of five youngsters but of dark forces behind the scenes.”


Protestants Targeted

The recent hearing comes amid complaints from Turkey’s tiny Protestant community that it is being targeted for violence.

On Sept. 5 the Turkish Alliance of Protestant Churches filed a complaint to the Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Directorate that security forces were not offering them adequate protection in the face of increasing attacks, according to Sabah.

Turkish police responded to the complaints and released information on recent attacks against Christians. They said a majority of attackers were not arrested, and those that were detained merely paid a fine and were later released.

Susanne Geske, wife of the martyred Tilmann Geske, filed a lawsuit against the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs on Wednesday (Sept. 10) for not taking preventative measures against the murders. The lawsuit calls for 630,000 Turkish lira (US$507,000) for physical and immaterial compensation.

Geske’s lawyer, Ibrahim Kali, told NTV, “It is the basic duty of a government to protect the rights of life and freedom of religion and conscience. But the government did not protect the liberties of religion and conscience of those close to my client.”

The next hearing in the Malatya murder case is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Report from Compass Direct News