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


Death of Christian worker leads at least one other group to consider postponing relief work.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – Aid agencies are reviewing the viability of their presence in Afghanistan following the murder of Christian aid worker Gayle Williams, who was killed in Kabul last week in a drive-by shooting.

This latest attack in the heart of Kabul has added to the sense of insecurity already felt by in-country foreign aid workers due to the recent escalation in violence by insurgent groups.

“[There is] gradually encroaching control by the Taliban of the regions outside of the cities and the roads in between, and now it looks like the ability to operate even inside the cities as well,” said Mike Lyth, chairman of Serve Afghanistan, a humanitarian organization that has worked with Afghans since the 1970s. “It’s very difficult – I mean, how do you stop somebody riding in on a motorcycle?”

Dan McNorton, public information officer for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told Compass that despite the worsening situation, the United Nations had a 50-year history with Afghanistan and its commitment to the country and its people remained “absolutely solid.”

“There is no indication from the NGOs or humanitarian and other aid organizations that are here that there is any desire or decision for them not to be here, not to carry out the good work that they are here to do,” he said.

In light of recent events, however, Serve Afghanistan’s Lyth believes that aid agencies will have to reconsider their presence in the country.

“Each time something like this happens they have a review,” he said. “We’re certainly going to be reviewing [our position] this next week.”

A recently issued U.N. report stated that there were more than 120 attacks targeting aid workers in the first seven months of this year alone. These attacks saw 92 abducted and 30 killed.

“Yesterday I was talking to one agency that has decided to postpone their work in the country in response to the attacks,” said Karl Torring of the European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan. Other agencies he represents, however, are not so quick to make a decision.

“So people say, ‘Well, we are committed to the Afghans but how many lives is it worth in terms of foreigners and Afghani staff as well’” said Lyth.

Speaking at a news conference following the death of Williams, Humayun Hamidzada, spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, issued a warning to international aid workers in Kabul.

“The international workers based in Kabul, be it with the aid agencies or in the private sector, should get in touch with the relevant police departments, review their security measures and make sure they take necessary precautions while they commute,” he said according to Voice of America.

Taliban insurgents have claimed responsibility for Williams’ death, and in a telephone interview with Reuters they cited the spreading of Christian “propaganda” as the reason for the attack.

Williams, 34, a dual citizen of Britain and South Africa, had recently been relocated to Kabul from Kandahar due to fears over safety after recent attacks against civilians.

A volunteer with Serve Afghanistan for two years, she was walking to her office when she was shot dead by two men riding a motorcycle.

Serve Afghanistan provides education and support for the poor and disabled and, according to Lyth, has a strict policy against proselytizing.

Doubting a purely religious motive, some have questioned the Taliban’s charge against Williams of proselytizing. Sources have suggested that Williams was targeted more as a Western woman than as a Christian, considering the presence of easily identifiable religious groups in the country, such as various Catholic orders, and in light of the scope of previous attacks.

“A month before, they had killed three women from a secular agency and said they were spies,” said Lyth. “They pick whatever reason, to get them off the hook and give them some valid reason for attacking women. There’s been a major spate of attacks on women rather than anybody else.”

In a meeting of the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, UNAMA head and U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan Kai Eide suggested that the Taliban attacks were designed to attract media attention as they sought to demoralize and hinder reconstruction efforts.

“I think everyone agrees the Taliban are winning the public relations war in Afghanistan,” said Torring.

A recent report by Voice of America pointed out that many of Afghanistan’s reconstruction projects rely heavily on foreign management and training efforts. The attempts of the Taliban to destabilize foreign presence could greatly undermine these projects and have severely detrimental effects on the nation.

U.N. figures state that violent attacks in the country are up from the 2003 monthly average of 44 to a monthly average of 573.

Report from Compass Direct News