Murder trial's focus in Turkey challenged
The 20 lawyers, most of them working pro bono on behalf of the victims' families and Turkish Protestant churches, spelled out detailed criticisms of the prosecutors' investigations at the Nov. 23 hearing.
The plaintiffs' attorneys objected to the tone of the indictment and investigation, declaring that 16 of 31 key files in the case focused on the Christian victims' religious activities rather than the murderers, who tied up, stabbed and slit the throats of Turkish convert and pastor Necati Aydin, fellow convert Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske.
According to one lawyer quoted by Turkey's Milliyet newspaper on Nov. 20, this "irrelevant" information looked like an indirect effort by the chief prosecutor "to reduce the charges by making the victims' attempts to spread their religion look like 'provocation.'"
"If a prosecutor sees missionary activities as criminal, then it is not difficult to understand how some people can become crazy and kill these missionaries!" wrote plaintiff lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz, legal representative of the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches, in a Nov. 22 column in the Turkish Daily News.
The plaintiffs' attorneys also presented a surprise demand to broaden the prosecution from an isolated case of terrorism to the criminal code statutes against religious "genocide."
It was the first time the five confessed murderers, all 19 to 20 years of age, had appeared outside prison since their arrest. Two other young men who have not been detained also are being tried, accused of involvement in the crime. No photography was permitted of the defendants, and they were flanked in the courtroom by more than a dozen armed guards who shielded them from the view of court observers.
During the four-hour court proceedings, the plaintiff team protested a number of irregularities on the part of prosecutors Mehmet Badem and Omer Tetik, who had conducted the six-month criminal investigation and prepared the written indictment submitted Oct. 5.
In a series of four lengthy statements submitted to the court, the plaintiff team demanded that evidence and interrogations that were blatantly missing in the prosecutors' investigation be obtained and included in the court trial.
Only after the indictment was filed were plaintiff and defense lawyers allowed access to the 31 investigation files, with even the victims' autopsies officially kept "confidential" under Turkish anti-terrorism laws. Nevertheless, large portions of the alleged murderers' interrogations have been leaked to the Turkish press throughout the investigation.
Cengiz accused prosecutors of failing to properly investigate the organizations and individuals named by the defendants during their interrogations. No inquiries were made into inflammatory local media reports, which he said trumpeted the killers' slanderous accusations of immorality and political intrigue against the three victims killed at their Zirve Publishing House workplace in Malatya.
According to an article on the independent Turkish Bianet news website on Nov. 26, the tone of the criminal investigation and biased reporting in the Turkish media marks "a dangerous shift of focus from the presumed perpetrators of a crime to conspiracy theories linking Christian missionaries and PKK [the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party] activities."
Bianet fingered the Ihlas News Agency as one major culprit trying to deflect blame from the killers by targeting some of the joint team of well-known Turkish attorneys for their defense of various Kurdish defendants accused of PKK links. Other lawyers were targeted for representing the family of murdered Armenian Christian journalist Hrant Dink or Necati Aydin, who had been falsely accused in 2000 of distributing Christian materials by force.
Two days after the Malatya hearing, the plaintiff lawyers announced they were filing an official complaint over repeated surveillance and interference with their e-mail and telephone communications in the days leading up to the Nov. 23 opening of the trial.
"When we tried to open our e-mails, we had a message claiming, 'Blocked by court order,'" attorney Cengiz told Milliyet newspaper on Nov. 25. "But if this had been a court order, we couldn't have accessed them a day later."
The lawyer noted that details of private telephone conversations within the lawyers' group were appearing in the press during the days just preceding the trial, including their discussions on applying "genocide" laws in the case. "Our complete defense strategy was known beforehand," he said.
The hearing over the ritual slaughter of three Christians in eastern Turkey last April 18 grabbed national attention in the Turkish media, with the spotlight focused on the court appearance of two widows of the murdered men.
News clip footage and reports from the hearing led a number of national TV and radio station broadcasts the evening of Nov. 23, followed the next day by prominently headlined reports in nearly all national newspapers. The most prominent coverage focused on the two widows who attended the hearing and briefly addressed the court as official plaintiffs in the case.
Turkey's largest circulation newspaper, the daily Hurriyet, featured the wife and children of Necati Aydin in its front-page banner headline the day after the hearing.
"Mommy, when will they kill us?" read the headline, flanked by a photograph of widow Semse Aydin with her 6-year-old daughter Esther in her arms during the murdered pastor's funeral seven months ago.
"My children are missing their father and I cannot comfort them," the widow told the court. "They are asking me if they will also be killed because they are Christians."
Susanne Geske, wife of Tilmann Geske, told the court that after living in Turkey for 10 years, "As a Christian, I view this nation as my own. I have established my whole life here." She noted that her neighbors and even the local Muslim imam had come to her home to pay condolence visits to her and her three children after the murders.
"Turkey is a secular country and I believe a correct decision for justice will be made," Geske said.
As the wife of a former Muslim who had converted to Christianity, Aydin said that while she also left the prosecution of justice to the Turkish state, she expected the court to uncover the instigators behind the young murderers who so viciously tortured and killed her pastor husband, along with Yuksel, also a former Muslim, and Geske.
"I want the murder mentality of these youths uncovered," Aydin declared. "And I want not only punishment of these five youths, but those who were behind them in this mentality."
Before and during the high-profile hearing, Turkish police enforced a heavy security clampdown around the Malatya criminal court building as well as hotels where out-of-town lawyers, diplomatic observers, journalists and some relatives of the victims were staying.
International observers admitted into the courtroom included official representatives from the German and U.S. embassies and the European Commission's delegation to Turkey, as well as two foreign journalists.
More than 20 Turkish Protestant church leaders gathered at the courthouse for the trial, although due to the limited space in the courtroom, only five were allowed to observe the proceedings.
During initial proceedings of the hearing, the plaintiff lawyers protested the presence of several observers expected to be called to testify in the case. The judge subsequently ordered three individuals removed from the courtroom, including the fathers of two of the killers.
Plaintiffs' attorney Cengiz complained during the hearing that making some investigation files public had released private contact information, allowing Islamic extremists to target many Protestant Christians throughout Turkey as well as everyone the victims had contacted in the Malatya region since 2005.
"The prosecutor failed to make a thorough investigation, and he has also put many other lives in danger," Cengiz said.
The bench of three judges refused the plaintiff lawyers' request to withdraw these files from the trial. Nor did the judges agree to allow video or audio recordings of the court proceedings, although the court stated it would consider plaintiff demands to interrogate the defendants regarding possible commission of religious genocide or a hate crime.
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.