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Turkey : Lawyers Demand Removal of Malatya Judges

Court’s impartiality questioned as evidence, courtroom recording withheld.

ICC Note

“We don’t have any trust in the court. There are many ‘lost’ details that are being withheld. We have the right to examine all the missing documents and pieces of evidence.”

Thursday February 28, 2008 Turkey (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers representing the families of three Christians tortured and slaughtered with knives in eastern Turkey last April demanded this week that the three-member bench of judges hearing the case be replaced.

Addressing the Malatya Third Criminal Court on Monday (February 25), plaintiff lawyer Özkan Yücel Soylu declared that the “impartiality and independence” of the court was in jeopardy. Soylu told presiding justice Eray Gurtekin and his two associate judges that their repeated refusals to grant the plaintiff legal team’s procedural requests were obstructing justice in the high-profile murder case.

On April 18, 2007, five young Turkish Muslims entered the Malatya offices of Zirve Publishing, a distributor of Bibles and Christian literature, under false pretenses of wanting to study Christianity. The assailants tied up, tortured and then slit the throats of Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, both Turkish Christians who had converted from Islam, and German Christian Tilmann Geske.

According to identical handwritten notes found in the pockets of all five killers, their motives were both nationalist and religious. “We did this for our country,” the notes read. “They are attacking our religion.”

Refusal to Record Hearings

Plaintiff lawyers have protested repeatedly that the official court record contains only abbreviated summaries of their oral arguments and court witnesses.

At the outset of Monday’s hearing, the Malatya panel of judges again denied plaintiff requests to allow the hearings to be recorded. They also refused to release access to all the evidence gathered by the state prosecutors or to remove 16 files irrelevant to the killings, which in effect targeted people who had been in contact with the murdered Christians.

It was the Malatya judges’ third consecutive refusal of plaintiff requests to record the trial hearings, coming just weeks after an Istanbul court decision made Turkish judiciary history by permitting the first courtroom taping of a trial hearing. Complete video and sound recordings were ordered earlier in February at the trial of Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian editor assassinated in January 2007.

Shortly after this ruling, Soylu noted, the Justice Ministry on February 14 assured the plaintiff lawyers for the murdered Christians that a similar request to tape the Malatya hearings would be granted promptly.

Court Withholding Evidence

Soylu also objected to the court’s refusal to grant access to a host of documents and other evidence, including the killers’ computer records, photographs from the autopsies and crime scene and security camera films from one suspect’s hospital room.

“This is essential information if we are to properly cross-examine the defendants,” Soylu stated. “It is illegal to not allow us to review this evidence.”

The right to decide on access to the documents was not the court’s in the first place, Soylu continued.

“It is our automatic right under the laws of Turkey ,” Soylu stated. “If this continues to happen, we will of course have to apply to the European Court of Human Rights, which will make it obvious that Turkey does not follow its own laws.”

Questioning whether in fact vital evidence in the case had been destroyed, Soylu said, “We don’t have any trust in the court. There are many ‘lost’ details that are being withheld. We have the right to examine all the missing documents and pieces of evidence.”

In response to the plaintiff lawyers’ complaints, Gurtekin called a short recess in the hearing to confer with the other two judges. Upon his return, he reminded the plaintiff lawyers that they must file their formal complaint within seven days to the Diyarbakir High Criminal Court, demanding a new judicial bench.

He then adjourned the hearing until March 17 to await a decision from the Diyarbakir court review of the plaintiff lawyers’ complaint.

Criminal Gang Links

In further remarks, Soylu referred pointedly to the instigators believed to be behind the five suspects, complaining that both the court and prosecutors were “working in the wrong direction.”

“False letters to misdirect [the investigation] are coming to the prosecutor, and someone is going from newspaper to newspaper to misguide the public,” Soylu said. “In other words, this gang’s activities are continuing.”

In mid-January Turkish police arrested dozens of prominent figures accused of being part of a criminal gang, said to be the “deep state” representing renegade powers inside the Turkish government.

The so-called “Ergenekon” network allegedly helped stage the Malatya massacre as well as the slayings of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and journalist Hrant Dink. Jailed suspects in the ongoing investigation include a retired army general, ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, journalists, university professors and a spokesperson of the bogus Turkish Orthodox Church.

Court observers at this third hearing included official representatives from the German, Norwegian and Dutch embassies, as well as human rights groups and Diego Mellado, head of the political section of the European Commission’s delegation to Turkey .

Police Protection for Lawyer

After stalling for nearly three weeks, Ankara police authorities yesterday ordered an armed bodyguard for Orhan Kemal Cengiz, the Turkish attorney heading the Malatya plaintiff team of lawyers.

Cengiz had requested police protection on February 8, after a series of overt threats against his life and clear-cut evidence that his telephones and e-mail correspondence were being tapped. Cengiz has served for eight years as legal counsel to the Turkish Alliance of Protestant Churches.

Last week two opposition deputies called for a parliamentary investigation into the recent attacks against Turkey ’s Christian leaders and non-Muslims, declaring that these violent incidents were “neither accidental nor individual.”

Republican Party deputies Sukru Elekdag and Onur Oymen warned that if such attacks continued, Turkey ’s image would be seriously damaged.

In a report submitted to the Turkish Parliament’s Human Rights Commission on January 14, Turkey ’s Protestants noted that 2007 had been a “dark year” with a “serious and negative effect” on their small community.

In addition to the Malatya massacre, the report cited 19 specific incidents of intimidation and violence against their church leaders and buildings reported officially to Turkish security officials. The Protestants faulted ongoing “campaigns of provocation” inciting Turkish society against non-Muslim groups and portraying “missionary activity” as a crime, even at the highest state levels.

“Non-Muslims in Turkey [are] a prime target, particularly for radical groups,” the report stated.