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Police Clamp Strict Security on Christians’ Trial
Measures follow murder of Armenian journalist; defense lawyer smells conspiracy plot.

1/31/07 Turkey (Compass Direct News) – Strict security controls surrounded the second court hearing for two Turkish Christians facing criminal charges for insulting Turkish identity under the nation’s controversial Article 301.

Police had thrown cordons around the Silivri courthouse and main streets into the town hours before Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal arrived from Istanbul with their lawyer for the 2 p.m. trial on Monday (January 29).

Heightened police protection for the two Christians and their lawyer was attributed to the shocking assassination 10 days earlier of another Turkish Christian, prominent Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, murdered in Istanbul by a teenage nationalist.

Editor of the weekly Agos newspaper, Dink had drawn the wrath of Turkish nationalists after his trial and conviction last year under Article 301, the same restrictive law against freedom of speech under which Tastan and Topal are charged.

Uniformed police officers met the defendants’ car as it approached the center of Silivri, a town 45 miles west of Istanbul. Authorities were already questioning and thoroughly searching everyone entering the courthouse, refusing admittance to onlookers or members of the press.

Meanwhile, small groups of young men could be seen idling around the streets adjoining the court building, eyeing the entrance and all passersby.

But police spirited the defendants in and out of the back door of the courthouse, preventing tensions like those aroused by nationalist demonstrators at the first hearing in November. In doing so, they also frustrated a mob of journalists and photographers lying in wait for the court participants at the front steps of the courthouse.

As soon as the hearing concluded, the Christians and their lawyer were immediately escorted out of town. When onlookers spotted them leaving the courthouse grounds, one police officer climbed in their car until they left the city limits under police car escort and approached the main highway.

“Of course, they provided us with very serious protection,” defense lawyer Haydar Polat told Compass afterwards. “But at the same time this created a lot of apprehension for my clients, with police climbing into our car, taking photographs of our license plate, etc.”

The two Christians, who are both converts from Islam, are also accused under less-known penal statutes of reviling Islam (Article 216) and secretly compiling private data on Turkish citizens for a Bible correspondence course (Article 135).

At their January 29 hearing, the presiding judge again closed his court to all observers, with only the defendants and their lawyer present for the defense. They faced seven prosecuting lawyers led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz, notorious in Turkey for having hounded the outspoken Dink with multiple charges under Article 301.

Contradictory Testimony

Fatih Kose, 23, the only adult among the three accusers, took the witness stand for the first time in the case. In his testimony, Kose reportedly admitted that he had visited Tastan’s church in Istanbul several times of his own free will.

While reiterating his written accusations, Kose contradicted himself several times as to where and when he had heard specific “illegal” statements, and from which of the two defendants. “His testimony was very contradictory,” Polat said, “and this kept angering the judge, who really chewed him out over many of his statements.”

When Polat asked the court whether Kose was a member of any known political group in Silivri, Kerincsiz reportedly shook his fists at Polat, objecting so vehemently to the question that the judge ordered him to stop “making a show.”

Kerincsiz further embarrassed himself when the judge demanded to know why he had not produced the two teenager accusers in court. The lawyer’s explanation that the two boys had not gotten permission to be absent from school that day fell flat with the judge, who dryly reminded Kerincsiz that all the nation’s schools had closed three days earlier for their annual winter recess.

A 16-minute video submitted by the prosecution at the first hearing as evidence against the defendants proved to have been filmed at a distance, with no sound track of anyone’s voices to corroborate the accusers’ claims. Tastan and Topal had been filmed secretly while conversing in a tea garden in Silivri with several youths.

The prosecution then submitted another video, said to have been filmed secretly in Tastan’s church during a communion service, to be examined before the next hearing for alleged insults against Turkishness or Islam uttered by the defendants.

“This was exactly a plot, a conspiracy,” lawyer Polat said, after hearing Kose’s testimony in court. “The youths asked for Bibles, for brochures, they go of their own accord to church – and then they come and complain!”

Setting the next hearing for April 18, the judge ordered police escorts to ensure that all three complainants were brought, “by force if necessary,” to testify. The underage plaintiffs have been identified by their first names as Alper, 16, and Oguz, 17.

Gendarme Ordered to Testify

The judge also issued a summons for an official witness to testify from the regional gendarme headquarters, which initiated a raid last October on Tastan’s home and the defendants’ Istanbul office, allegedly searching for weapons.

In addition, the court requested a copy of news footage aired on Turkey’s ATV channel on November 20 and 21. Kose was interviewed in the broadcast, denouncing Tastan and Topal for “working to Christianize Turkish Muslims en masse.”

In his statements at Monday’s hearing, Kerincsiz reportedly accused Tastan’s church of breaking the law by collecting offerings and tithes from the congregation. The attorney insisted that Turkish law required all domestic institutions to obtain permission from their local civil authorities to collect funds.

“Every mosque in Turkey has an offering box for the donations of the faithful,” Topal commented to Compass. “So don’t we Christian citizens have that same right?”

When Kerincsiz exited the courthouse front entrance after the 55-minute hearing, he refused to speak with either Compass or the Turkish media, simply repeating the date of the next hearing, April 18.

In the wake of considerable international media on the case, the European Commission and various officials within the European Parliament have sent inquiries to the Turkish Ministry of Justice and other government bodies, requesting judicial developments on the charges against the two Christians.

Ever since the case was filed against them, Tastan told Compass yesterday, he has been made aware that his e-mails, telephone calls, home and even movements in the area have been under constant surveillance.

“The day after I visit anyone, whether it’s a relative or some acquaintance in another town, the secret police come around and question them about my visit,” Tastan said. “Am I considered a terrorist, that I warrant such attention?”

“We don’t know what the results of this trial will be,” Tastan said. “But God knows. And I think that the judge understood on Monday that the people accusing us are not telling the truth.”