UPDATE (3 Oct.): Five Turkish men convicted last week of the 2007 murder of three Christians in southeast Turkey – but allowed to remain free – have been re-arrested.
They were picked up on Thursday evening (29 Sep.) after the prosecutor, Burhanettin Olgun, expressed fears they may flee Turkey.
Turkey’s tiny Protestant community said their confidence in justice had been “severely wounded” by the decision to let the killers remain free. The five will now remain in custody until their appeals process is concluded.
Original story (29 Sep.)
Nine years after three Christians were tortured with knives and murdered in southeast Turkey, the Criminal Court in the city of Malatya, where it happened, has convicted their five accused killers, sentencing each of them on 28 Sept. to three consecutive life sentences in prison.
News of the long-awaited verdicts in the notorious “Malatya massacre” case quickly flashed throughout the Turkish media at the conclusion of the trial’s 115th hearing. Emre Gunaydin, Salih Gurler, Abuzer Yildirim, Cuma Ozdemir and Hamit Ceker were all found guilty of premeditated murder, to be jailed for life without the possibility of parole.
But most media outlets failed to report the court’s surprise ruling: that the now convicted killers would in fact still remain free, subject only to routine surveillance, while the case is being appealed before two higher courts.
Arrested at the scene of the crime, the five young men had slit the throats of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Protestant Tilmann Geske in the Zirve publishing house in Malatya on 18 April, 2007.
During the next seven years of trial proceedings, begun in November 2007, the defendants and their lawyers insisted the attack was an attempt to stop the “harmful activities” of missionaries who were allegedly trying to destroy the nation of Turkey and the honour of Islam. A major scandal soon broke out when the Interior Ministry was forced to open an investigation over alleged collusion of public officials and seriously flawed conduct by state prosecutors in the case.
Then in March 2014, the suspects’ release on bail under a newly-passed reform law shocked Turkey’s tiny Protestant community, despite assurances that the men would be held under house arrest. (Under Turkey’s now current Code of Criminal Procedure, a suspect cannot be detained for more than five years before the final verdict is reached.) The three who lived in Malatya were then fitted with electronic tracking devices, while the other two living in outlying towns were required to report weekly to their local police station.
So now, even though Malatya’s first instance court has found them guilty, this ruling must be reviewed and approved by the Court of Appeals before the sentence can be enforced.
According to the 47-page verdict issued by Presiding Judge Vedat Koc, two military officers were also handed jail sentences for crimes committed in relation to the case. Along with Islamic university researcher Ruhi Abad, the two had been released in January 2015 after nearly four years in jail over their suspected involvements in the case.
Both officers were found guilty of violating the confidentiality of secret communications and forging documents. Malatya Gendarmerie Commander Ret. Col. Mehmet Ulcer was ordered jailed for 13 years and nine months; Maj. Haydar Yesil was sentenced for 14 years, 10 months and 22 days.
Like the five killers, their sentences cannot be carried out until the appeal process has been completed.
Ret. Gen. Hursit Tolon, a high-ranking former general also accused of complicity in the murders, was acquitted along with 15 other suspected perpetrators.
Hours after the court decisions were announced, Pastor Ihsan Ozbek released a statement to the press on behalf of the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey.
Deploring the judiciary’s stated inability to “uncover the darkness behind the murders”, Ozbek declared that the Protestant community desired a prompt, “just conclusion” that uncovered the motivation of the perpetrators and punished their crime.