A Turkish criminal court has released two former military officers and an Islamic university researcher who had been jailed for nearly four years on suspected involvement in the 2007 murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey.
At the 101st hearing of the case Jan. 21, the Malatya First High Criminal Court ruled that the three men – Ret. Col. Mehmet Ulger, Maj. Haydar Yesil and Ruhi Abat — be set free pending the conclusion of the trial.
“This is a huge shame, that leaves us without much hope,” said Protestant church leader Umut Sahin, who was present when the court’s ruling was announced. “Unfortunately, we expect the case will drag on now for at least another year.”
“We were not at all surprised,” plaintiff lawyer Erdal Dogan told World Watch Monitor shortly after the panel of three judges and two prosecutors announced its decision.
He noted that political manipulation had changed the direction of the case over the past 12 months. Together with Ret. Gen. Hursit Tolon, the accused mastermind of the murders who was set free last June, the newly released suspects now claim the deadly plot was orchestrated by the government’s former-ally-turned-nemesis, the Hizmet movement led by Muslim scholar Fetullah Gulen.
The day before the Malatya hearing, Gulen’s lawyer, Nuruallah Albayrak, issued a statement accusing the Turkish government of “trying to heap unsolved murders” on Gulen and his movement, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled an illegal “parallel” conspiracy trying to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party.
On the witness stand Wednesday, defendant Abat testified that the accusations against him were “disinformation” devised by the parallel state, stressing, “I am with President Erdogan to the end, and I will always support him.” Met by his family and local journalists as he left the prison that evening with his fellow defendants, Abat declared that they had been arrested “in a dirty plot.”
With Wednesday’s release of Ulger, Yesil and Abat, all but one of 20 of the men jailed in March 2011 on charges of planning the Malatya killings are now released on probation. By court order, they are banned from leaving the country until the completion of the trial. The last of the 20 is jailed in another city on a separate case.
Life sentences without parole have been demanded for the five men accused of carrying out the plot. They were released under house arrest in March 2014 and fitted with tracking devices.
The drawn-out Malatya trial has now spanned more than seven years, with the 8th anniversary of the brutal stabbing deaths of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Tilmann Geske to be commemorated on April 18.
Hearings are scheduled to resume in the trial on Feb. 18.
See: Malatya murder trial defendants exploit Turkish government ‘witch-hunt’