Suspects accused of helping to orchestrate the brutal murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey in 2007 are now blaming the crime on the Hizmet movement, an influential Islamic group accused of treason by the ruling Turkish government.
Testimony from two former military officers and an Islamic university researcher dominated the 96th and 97th round of hearings on Oct. 15-16 in a trial that has gone on for seven years. The accused perpetrators were brought from prison to read out their lengthy defense claims to the Malatya First High Criminal Court.
The three men claimed that the Hizmet movement, led by Muslim scholar Fetullah Gulen, was behind the savage torture and stabbing to death of two Turkish converts to Christianity and a German missionary at the Zirve Publishing House in Malatya in April 2007.
The defendants declared that the socio-religious group, which had once been a strong ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had planned the deadly plot to discredit the Turkish military and overthrow the government.
Similar claims have been raised by other suspects since last spring, when the trial was transferred from Turkey’s terrorism courts to be tried by a new panel of judges and prosecutors. Most of the 20 or so accused perpetrators have been released pending trial, including former Gen. Hursit Tolon, said to have headed TUSHAD, an illegal group in the Turkish armed forces also alleged to be behind the murders.
After leading AKP officials were implicated in a massive corruption investigation last December, then- Prime Minister, now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled Hizmet an illegal, secretive “parallel structure” within the state, and vowed to root out its adherents from the police force and judiciary.
Lawyers representing the Malatya victims’ families dismissed the defendants’ “parallel structure” accusations as political manipulation, in an attempt to deflect concrete evidence pointing at military and ultra-nationalist involvement in the deadly plot. In effect, lawyers said, the suspects were exploiting the government’s “witch-hunt” against the Hizmet movement in order to get themselves acquitted.
“If the court was determined, it would finish this case in two or three months,” attorney Erdal Dogan told World Watch Monitor at last week’s trial. “But it is not, and the accused perpetrators are blocking the end of the trial with their defense testimony. So it looks like it could continue for a year or more.”
“The trial is heading into darkness with an ambiguous process,” lawyer Murat Dincer agreed, quoted by Today’s Zaman newspaper.
Both lawyers expressed serious concerns that the five accused killers, who were released from prison in March this year and fitted with electronic tracking devices, could now manage to escape the country before their verdict is final. Since hearings restarted in June, three of the murder suspects have been escorted to court by police, with the other two video-linked to the court-room proceedings from police stations near their homes.
Dogan and Dincer are part of a team of prominent human rights lawyers who have been representing the Christian victims’ families on a pro bono basis for the past seven years. They have been threatened in court by several of the defendants and continue to receive death threats and hate mail for their pro-active role in the case.
The bench of judges and prosecutors hearing the Zirve case has changed three times in the past seven years. “This has excessively prolonged the trial,” Dogan told Taraf newspaper. With more than 100,000 pages of evidence and court testimony now accumulated on the case, the current panel, led by Presiding Judge Vedat Koc, has been examining the files since it began re-hearing the case this past June.
The plaintiff lawyers also criticized a stream of “deliberate disinformation” appearing in pro-government media over the past few months, to convince public opinion that the “parallel structure” was behind the Malatya murders. Protestant church leaders have point-blank rejected these allegations as attempts to divert attention from the networks that were actually behind the events.
A week before the Oct. 15 hearing, the daily Aksam newspaper headlined its lead story, “Christian Parallels at Zirve!” In its Oct. 8 interview with an accused perpetrator who is now released, the suspect claimed there was a “close relationship” between Protestant missionaries and the “parallel structure;” that the lawyer for the Alliance of Protestant Churches Orhan Kemal Cengiz had helped plan the Zirve murders; and that Cengiz was himself a Christian. Cengiz has opened a court case against Aksam for slandering him with what he called “very cheap, childish lies.”
Defense lawyers’ petitions to release the last four out of the 20 accused from prison on bail for the duration of the trial were denied at the last hearing. Their plea to also permit the five suspects who actually carried out the murders, all now on bail, to remove their tracking devices, and instead sign in weekly at a local police station, was also refused. The trial will resume on December 10.