Turkish teen sentenced for Catholic priest's slaying

Ankara, Turkey - A Turkish court on Tuesday sentenced a teenager to more than 18 years in prison for shooting and killing a Catholic priest as he knelt in prayer inside his church, his lawyer said.

The 16-year-old boy, who has been identified by the court in the Black Sea city of Trabzon only by his initials, O.A., pleaded guilty to killing the Rev. Andrea Santoro, 60, on Feb. 5 while he prayed at his parish in the Turkish city of Trabzon.

"I regret it," the boy told the court when he was asked for his last words before sentencing, according to the private Dogan news agency.

The shooting occurred in February at a time of widespread anger in the Islamic world over caricatures in European newspapers of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Witnesses said the youth shouted "Allahu Akbar" — Arabic for "God is great" — before firing two bullets into Santoro's back, according to authorities.

The court sentenced the youth to 18 years, 10 months and 20 days in prison on charges of premeditated murder, possession of an unlicensed gun and deliberately threatening public safety, the court said.

"I was expecting this decision, there will be an appeal," the boy's lawyer Mahya Usta told reporters after the verdict.

The boy's family reacted angrily, saying the penalty was too heavy.

Before the trial, the boy was escorted by paramilitary police as he was rushed into the courthouse. He was wearing a dark suit, white shirt and no tie.

The court initially sentenced him to life in prison for premeditated murder but later lowered his prison term for good behavior and for being a juvenile at the time of the crime, Dogan said. He was separately ordered to pay a 250 Turkish lira (US$165) fine.

The boy, however, will not serve the entire sentence under Turkish law, which foresees some routine and technical deductions in all prison terms.

He would be released from prison after serving another 10 years and 5 months, Dogan reported, citing legal experts.

Following the killing of Santoro, two more Catholic clerics came under attack in Turkey.

A group of young men attacked and threatened a Catholic priest in the Aegean port city of Izmir. The priest, a Slovenian, told Italian state TV at the time that the men grabbed him by the throat, threw him into a garden and threatened to kill him.

The third attack occurred in July when a man stabbed a Roman Catholic priest in the Black Sea port of Samsun. The French priest, Pierre Brunissen, 74, was injured in the hip and leg.

Turkish leaders, who have also criticized the caricatures, have urged calm and condemned the attacks against the priests.

Pope Benedict XVI, who is scheduled to visit predominantly Muslim Turkey in late November,angered many in the Muslim world with a speech last month in Germany in which he quoted a statement by 14th century Byzantine emperor that many Islamic followers found offensive.

Benedict later expressed regret.