Four of five suspects on trial for murdering three Christians in Turkey’s south-eastern city of Malatya have all named the fifth suspect as the sole killer.
It was no surprise when the four men, now in their late 20s, made their final defence appeals in court last week, each facing three consecutive life sentences.
Categorically, they all accused fellow defendant, Emre Gunaydin, of acting alone when he tortured and knifed to death two Turkish converts to Christianity, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German missionary Tilmann Geske.
Each of the four declared they did not personally take part in any of the three murders. “Emre Gunaydin killed them one by one, mercilessly,” suspect Salih Gurler told the court.
It was the 107th hearing in the drawn-out case, now stretching into its eighth year in litigation since the gruesome slaying on 18 April, 2007 at the Zirve publishing house in Malatya.
On the witness stand on 9 Sep. before the Malatya First High Criminal Court, the four defendants testified that Gunaydin had coerced them, through intimidating personal threats, to join him on the office raid. “When he told us that his older brother and father were mafia, we began to be afraid of him,” suspect Cuma Ozdemir said.
Stressing Gunaydin’s “irritable” personality and habit of always carrying a knife, Gurler said the group’s alleged ringleader had also flaunted his close relations with the local police.
According to the suspects’ claims, Gunaydin began to indoctrinate them against Christian missionaries shortly after he became acquainted with them, accusing Protestant house churches of working against the Turkish state in collusion with Kurdish PKK militants. Eventually he unveiled his plan to raid the Zirve office in Malatya, in order to confiscate documents and computer files that he said would reveal the Christians’ “secret agenda” against Turkey and Islam.
But when the young men tried to refuse, saying they didn’t want to accompany him, they said he threatened them. “There’s no turning back; they won’t leave you and your family alone. . .The state knows you and your family. If you don’t want something to happen against your family, come,” suspect Abuzer Yildirim said Gunaydin told him.
Suspect Guler said Gunaydin announced just before the attack, “Men, the date of 18 April has been chosen.” So the four of them concluded, they said, that some powerful force organising the raid was behind Gunaydin.
Although Gunaydin showed them the handguns, knives, ropes and gloves he had brought to take along, they said he explained these items were just “to protect ourselves”.
“Emre never said anything to us about murder,” Ozdemir said. ” ‘We will take the documents and leave,’ he said. . .While [the murders] were happening, I wanted to leave, but the door was locked. So I waited by the window in shock!” All five of the suspects were arrested at the scene.
After seven years in a high-security prison, the five as-yet-unconvicted suspects were released to house arrest in March 2014, when they were fitted with electronic tracking devices. At the trial hearings held every few months since then, three have been brought under police escort to court, while the other two from outlying villages have appeared over closed-circuit video from police stations near their homes.
In his live video testimony from the Darende police station, suspect Ozdemir told the court, “My only regret is, if only I had become a shepherd and not come to Malatya. If only I had never met Emre Gunaydin!”
Fourth suspect Hamit Ceker declined to give his oral defence from the Elbistan police station, submitting his sworn testimony in writing to the court.
Gunaydin is expected to present his own final defence statement at the next hearing, set for 21 Oct.
Potential evidence manipulated
A prominent former military officer who also appeared to testify at the 9 Sep. hearing flatly denied any personal connection whatsoever with “these abhorrent murders”. Ret. Gen. Hursit Toron labelled accusations against alleged instigators of the Zirve attack as a slanderous attempt to discredit the Turkish military. Toron has been accused by a plaintiff witness of heading a secret military unit named TUSHAD, which allegedly organised the Zirve raid.
“This caused a huge legal massacre against the military,” Toron told the court. The high-ranking general was jailed for several years as a key suspect among 275 defendants in the Ergenekon conspiracy, an alleged criminal network of military officers, journalists and opposition parliamentarians accused of plotting to topple the Turkish government through a military coup.
Although Tolon was sentenced to life in prison during the six-year trial, he was among hundreds of military defendants released in 2014 after the government ordered a review of the Ergenekon case, which overturned their convictions. He became a defendant in the Zirve trial after it was linked to the Ergenekon file in 2009.
Recent attempts by lawyers for the Zirve victims’ families to obtain previously classified documents believed to link the so-called TUSHAD conspiracy with the Zirve murders have been denied by Ankara prosecution authorities.
“We would like to see these murders judged fairly. They killed our brothers very violently, so the court’s judgment should show that these were not just murders. It was a hate crime.”
–Soner Tufan, Turkish Alliance of Protestant Churches
Calling the refusal a “procedural error”, attorney Erdal Dogan told reporters after the Malatya hearing that claims that the TUSHAD investigation was “not yet completed” provided an excuse for prosecutors to withhold these records from the Zirve case.
According to Soner Tufan, spokesperson for Turkey’s Alliance of Protestant Churches, the judiciary handling of the Malatya case has discouraged and disillusioned the nation’s tiny minority Christian communities.
“We would like to see these murders judged fairly. They killed our brothers very violently, so the court’s judgment should show that these were not just murders. It was a hate crime. And of course we would like to know who was really behind these five young men accused of the killings. But up to now, we see no results on this, despite having found the best lawyers and worked hard to reveal the truth.”
On the long term, Tufan told World Watch Monitor, “We don’t really trust the justice system here to be fair to us as Christians. Unfortunately, the Malatya court case proves it. And that makes life very difficult for us here.”
Protestants under fresh attack
Just two days before the Malatya hearing, Turkish Protestants held a press conference at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara with Selina Dogan, a member of Parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party.
“In our country everyone who is not Sunni and Muslim is in a disturbed psychological state,” stated Dogan, herself an Armenian Christian.
She went on to alert the nation to a recent campaign of systematic death threats of a “jihadist” nature sent to Protestant church leaders, most of whom became Christians from Muslim backgrounds. Some 100 separate, almost identical threats had been sent to the websites, Facebook, emails and mobile telephones of more than 15 churches across the country.
“The security officials and prosecutors are not conducting effective investigations,” Dogan noted. “We are calling on the prosecutors, and we have requested a meeting with the Interior Minister.”
“The police have not taken any precautionary measures yet,” declared Ankara pastor Ihsan Ozbek. “This has left the Protestant community seriously anxious and worried.”
An inquiry to the Prime Minister on 4 Sep. from Parliament member Turgut Oker asked whether an appropriate investigation and precautions regarding these serious threats against Protestant citizens would be initiated. It remains unanswered.
In the face of the latest threats, General Secretary Umut Sahin of the Protestant association told World Watch Monitor, “We have not forgotten Malatya. The authorities must take these threats seriously.”