Evidence presented to the court during the trial of five youths accused of killing three Christians in the southeastern town of Malatya earlier this year have raised questions about the involvement of state officials in the murder.
On April 18, the five are alleged to have tortured and brutally killed three employees of Zirve Yayincilk, a Christian publishing house in Malatya. Two of the victims were Turks and the other a German national. The murders shocked Turkey, particularly as they came less than three months after the January 19 killing in Istanbul of Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos, a newspaper serving Turkey’s small community of Armenian Christians.
Initially the Malatya murders were thought merely to have been the work of a group of impoverished Islamist youths, several of whom were staying in the same dormitory run by a local Islamic foundation. The assumption was that, even if the five had not acted spontaneously, it had been an emotional decision taken at relatively short notice.
Under the Turkish judicial system, the individual hearings of a case are often spread over many months or years rather than being held on consecutive days, as is common in the United States and Western Europe. When the first hearing was held on November 23, the evidence presented by the public prosecutor contained detailed records of what were alleged to have been the victims’ missionary activities. This outraged the lawyers representing their families, who accused the state-appointed prosecutor of trying to present the defense with grounds for citing mitigating circumstances by claiming that their clients had been provoked (Radikal, Milliyet, NTV, November 24).
It has now emerged that, in the six months preceding the murders, four of the suspects changed their telephones a total of 106 times, suggesting a concerted attempt to avoid surveillance. The cost of changing telephones so frequently has also raised the question of whether they were receiving financial support. Perhaps more alarmingly, the records of the telephones used by the accused showed that those with whom they had been in regular contact included a local council member from the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), someone in the Ankara headquarters of the Special Police Unit, a public prosecutor, and a member of the military (Milliyet, Radikal, Vatan, NTV, CNN-Turk, November 4).
There is nothing to suggest that the institutions themselves were involved in the murders. However, the latest revelations have disturbing parallels with the trial of those suspected of killing Hrant Dink and have raised questions about the prevalence of racist and religious prejudices among those responsible for maintaining law and order. At the trial of Dink’s suspected murderer, it emerged that, despite reporting numerous death threats, Dink had not been offered police protection. More worryingly, telephone records presented to the court suggested that some of those accused of Dink’s murder had close links with elements in the police force in their native city of Trabzon, on Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast. After the main suspect had been arrested, the Turkish media published photographs taken by the detaining officers, showing him a variety of heroic poses in front of the Turkish flag. Similarly, after a 16 year-old was convicted of the February 2006 murder in Trabzon of the Italian priest Andrea Santoro, his family received photographs taken by detaining police showing their son proudly displaying a Turkish flag (Milliyet, October 5).
On November 28, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) published the results of a survey of the attitudes of members of the Turkish judiciary. A total of 51% of the judges and public prosecutors questioned said that they regarded human rights, including the freedom of expression, as a threat to national security and unity, compared with only 28% who did not. Some 63% believed that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was prejudiced against Turkey and 49% were opposed to the Turkish cases being taken to the court at all. Perhaps more worryingly, 53% of judges said that they paid no attention at all to any agreements signed by Turkey relating to basic freedoms and rights (NTV, CNNTurk, November 28, Radikal, November 29).
The full details of the events leading up to Dink’s murder are still not clear. The next hearing of the case involving the killings in Malatya is currently scheduled for January 14, although the case is not expected to be concluded until late summer or fall 2008 at the earliest. The evidence against the accused, most of whom were arrested at the scene of the crime, is so strong that few doubt that they will be convicted. However, there has as yet been no attempt to investigate some of the other questions raised by the case, not least what appears to be a recurring pattern whereby those involved in high-profile racist and religious hate crimes appear not only to have been in close contact with state officials but have subsequently been feted as heroes by members of the institutions responsible for enforcing law and order in Turkey.