Turkey: Trial For “Insulting Turkishness” Still Hounding Converts

Silivri, Turkey – In an effort to prolong the trial of two Turkish converts to Christianity accused of “denigrating Islam and Turkishness,” three gendarme soldiers on Thursday (March 13) were summoned to testify before the Silivri Criminal Court in northwestern Turkey as witnesses for the prosecution – which has yet to provide any evidence for its case.

Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, who were searched, detained and then charged in October 2006 under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 restricting freedom of speech, have been on trial for 18 months. The case was further delayed Thursday when two witnesses summoned to testify failed to show up, although at least one of them had been in the corridor of the courthouse just before the session started.

Accordingly, the judge ordered that prosecution witnesses Kemal Kalyoncu and Emin Demirci be brought “forcibly” to the next hearing, set for June 24.

Testimony is also expected at the June hearing from an additional three gendarme soldiers in Silivri, as well as three from the Istanbul Gendarme Headquarters.

“From our side, we can say that the outcome of the hearing was positive,” defense lawyer Haydar Polat told Compass. “The witnesses simply confirmed what happened in their investigation, without producing any evidence whatever of the charges against my clients.”

But on the negative side, Polat said, “All these new witnesses are unnecessary.”

The state prosecutor had called for the Christians’ acquittal last July, noting that the youthful plaintiffs in the case had given contradictory testimonies and no credible evidence had been produced to prove the charges. But the new judge assigned to the case in November accepted prosecution lawyer demands to call another dozen witnesses to testify.

“Of course our clients are distressed by this,” Polat told Compass, noting that the two Christians are being required to attend and hear the new prosecution witnesses, some of whom deliberately fail to appear in court. “All these extra witnesses are being called simply for the purpose of prolonging the case. There is no other purpose.”

The three soldiers from the Silivri Gendarme Headquarters testified separately to their involvement in searching the defendants’ homes and office on October 11, 2006, when they said they found a large number of Bibles and Christian documents, as well as several computers.

One of the soldiers said that at the time of their court-ordered investigation, military intelligence officers had shown them an organizational chart, listing names of alleged leaders of the detained Christians’ group, which is accused of conducting illegal religious activities.

Although the Christians’ trial in Silivri is officially held in “open” court, the current judge has refused to admit any Turkish or international press to observe the last two hearings.

Divine Delay

Defendant Topal told Compass that as he drank tea with several police officers on duty at the courthouse during the hour-long delay for yesterday’s hearing to begin, they asked him why he had left Islam and become a Christian.

“They insisted that I was being ‘used’ by Christian missionaries, that they were paying me lots of money to do this,” Topal said. “I explained that I came to faith 17 years ago all by myself, reading the New Testament, without knowing any other Christian in Turkey.”

Topal told them that he was not getting rich, and that if they believed otherwise they could visit him in his one-room flat in Istanbul.

“Of course, they think I have somehow broken the law,” Topal said. “So I just told them that I am not doing anything that is illegal, because under the democratic laws of Turkey, everyone is free to practice and witness about his personal faith.”

Prosecution Lawyer Jailed

Although six local attorneys for the prosecution were present at the March 13 hearing, the ultranationalist lawyer leading their team since the case opened in November 2006 was notably absent.

Prosecution attorney Kemal Kerincsiz has been jailed since mid-January on charges of direct involvement in the criminal “Ergenekon” gang suspected of instigating a string of unsolved murders over the past two decades.

Another jailed Ergenekon suspect, Sevgi Erenerol, had accompanied Kerincsiz to all the previous Silivri hearings against Topal and Tastan. Erenerol was the spokesperson for the so-called Turkish Orthodox Church, a bogus institution which reportedly became a front for laundering the cash for assassination hits engineered by Ergenekon.

According to Turkish media reports, the Ergenekon gang had a direct hand in the murder of three Christians in Malatya last April, as well as the assassinations of an Italian priest in Trabzon in February 2006 and an Armenian editor in January 2007.

Kerincsiz had gained national notoriety since May 2005, when he began to open cases against well-known Turkish academics, journalists and intellectuals under Article 301 provisions.

301 Changes ‘Shelved Indefinitely’

A senior member of the European Parliament declared last month that the European Union was losing patience with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over its failure to change the restrictive Article 301.

“We’re preparing a report for the European Parliament which will be voted on in April,” Joost Lagendijk told the British Broadcasting Corporation on February 11. “If nothing has moved by then on freedom of expression, the report will be negative.”

Turkey’s prime minister, justice minister and president have declared repeatedly over the past two years that amending the law was both needful and “high on their agenda.”

But last week AKP deputy Nihat Ergun admitted that although a revised draft of Article 301 was completed, it had been shelved indefinitely.

“I don’t know exactly when it will be brought up [in Parliament],” Ergun told Today’s Zaman newspaper last Tuesday (March 11).

Reportedly this reflects accommodations to the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, which supported the AKP’s recent constitutional amendment to allow headscarves on university campuses but opposes making any changes to Article 301.

Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan claimed on Channel 7 television yesterday that “in a very short time” the AKP government’s proposed amendments to Article 301 would be brought before the Turkish Parliament.

Babacan said that after the Foundations Law, Article 301 was the second most important package of political reforms now pending in Turkey.

Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek and other senior AKP members have insisted that there is nothing wrong with the current law. Instead, they say, the state simply needs to educate its prosecutors and judges regarding free speech issues.

Angered by ongoing criticism of his stance, Cicek claimed in a January 10 interview, “Article 301 is not my personal issue. And 301 is not a problem for anyone in Turkey.”

“Tell that to Rakel’s face!” shouted a banner headline in Taraf newspaper the next morning. Rakel Dink’s husband, Armenian Christian journalist Hrant Dink, was assassinated in January 2007 while under trial for several alleged violations of Article 301.

Proposed AKP changes in Article 301, such as reducing the maximum sentence from three to two years in prison and requiring prosecutors to get the Justice Minister’s permission to file charges, have been labeled “cosmetic” by their critics, who demand the law be abolished completely.

“What the AKP is proposing as ‘reform’ in that contentious article is not reform at all, but an attempt to deceive,” Turkish Daily News editor Yusuf Kanli wrote in a January 9 editorial.

“Hrant was killed and scores of other Turkish intellectuals were harassed and made targets under that Penal Code clause,” Kanli said. “We would prefer to see this contentious article erased … all together.”