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Compass Direct News

October 11, 2006

TEENAGER SENTENCED FOR MURDERING PRIEST

Eight months after an Italian Catholic priest was shot to death in his church along Turkey ’s Black Sea coast, the Trabzon Criminal Court yesterday sentenced his teenage killer to nearly 19 years in prison.

But according to legal experts quoted throughout the Turkish press, the young convict is expected to serve only 10.5 years in jail.

Identified during the murder trial only by his initials, O.A., the minor was named in today’s Radikal newspaper as 16-year-old Oguzhan Aydin.

Father Andrea Santoro, 60, was shot twice in the back with a Glock pistol after Sunday mass on February 5 as he knelt at the altar of the Santa Maria Catholic parish in Trabzon . Although two eyewitnesses to the murder did not see the assailant’s face, they heard him shout the opening words of the Muslim call to prayer, “Allahu akbar [God is great].”

In the ninth and final hearing of the closed-door trial begun on May 5, the judicial bench yesterday convicted Aydin of premeditated murder, possession of an unlicensed firearm and deliberately endangering public order.

The court meted out an initial life sentence in prison to the youth, as demanded by the local prosecutor on the case. But because he was underage, the court commuted his sentence to 18 years, 10 months and 17 days, in addition to a 250 Turkish lira (US$168) fine.

Aydin was captured by Turkish police on February 7, two days after a Glock pistol found in his possession was used to fire two bullets into the Italian priest’s back, killing him almost instantly.

Turkish police officials and government leaders have stated that all evidence indicated the shooting was “entirely an individual act,” although results of the police investigation and any transcript of court proceedings have remained confidential.

The entire trial has been held behind closed doors, with only the defendant’s father allowed to observe the hearings. The one Italian eyewitness to the crime was not summoned to testify in court, nor was any representative of either the Italian government or the Catholic church present during the hearings.

“We have our information only through the press,” Bishop Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar of Anatolia for the Roman Catholic church in Turkey , told Compass. He said he was hopeful, however, that the Trabzon prosecutor eventually would provide a text of the court’s decision to the Italian Embassy in Ankara .

“I would like to read what the judge wrote about the sentence,” Padoverse said, admitting he particularly wanted to learn what the murderer’s motive had been.

During the suspect’s first police interrogations, Aydin reportedly confessed that he had murdered the priest as revenge against Danish cartoons of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

The bishop also said he wanted an explanation as to how the youth had obtained such an expensive and illegal gun, reportedly manufactured in Austria . The Turkish press has claimed variously that the gun was owned by the youth’s older brother or his father.

According to Dogan News Agency, the boy told the court yesterday, just before his sentence was announced, that he “regretted” what he had done.

But Aydin’s family reacted in anger to the sentence, declaring to journalists outside the Trabzon courthouse, “We did not expect such a heavy penalty. We will appeal to the Supreme Court. This will not end here.”

“If my son is jailed for the state, for the people, then so be it with my blessing,” his mother said. “He is jailed for Allah,” she claimed. Both she and her daughter chanted “Allahu akbar!” as the convicted Aydin was hurried under heavy guard to a waiting prison van outside the courthouse and driven back to Trabzon ’s Bahcecik Prison.

Previous Attacks

There have been three more attacks against Catholic clergy in Turkey since Santoro’s death in February.

Just days after the Trabzon murder, a Franciscan friar was attacked and threatened by several Turkish youths in Izmir .

Then in the second week of March, a young Turk in the southern port city of Mersin chased two clerics and a group of Catholic youth inside their church, cursing Christianity and threatening them with a butcher knife until he finally surrendered to local police.

In July, an elderly French Catholic priest in Samsun , on the Black Sea , survived a knifing by a Turkish Muslim known for spreading false rumors against both Catholics and Protestants in the city.

In Padovese’s opinion, the religious climate against Christians in Turkey has worsened since Santoro’s assassination, which he attributed to misguided religious and nationalist motives fanned by the local media.

“They are always speaking in the Turkish newspapers about the pope, about the Christians, about the missionaries, and it is always negative,” Padovese said.

Turkey was particularly strident last month in its criticism of controversial statements about Islam attributed to Pope Benedict XVI, who is scheduled for a three-day state visit to Turkey in late November.