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Five suspects of Zirve massacre released, Christians anxious

As per a recently passed law that decreased the maximum period of detention to five years, five suspects tried for brutally killing three Christians at the Zirve Publishing House were released pending trial on Friday, a move that has made Christians in Turkey concerned for their safety.

Suspects Emre Günaydın, Abuzer Yıldırım, Cuma Özdemir, Hamit Çeker and Salih Gürler, for whom aggravated life sentences have been demanded, were released by the Malatya First High Criminal Court upon requests by suspects’ lawyers and are on probation from Malatya E-Type Prison.

The court based its decision on a law that has abolished specially authorized courts, while dropping the detention period for terrorism charges from 10 years to five. As per Law No. 6526, which went into effect after being published in the Official Gazette on Thursday, anyone who has been in prison for five years without a final verdict on their case will be released.

On April 18, 2007, Christians Necati Aydın (35), Uğur Yüksel and German national Tilmann Ekkehart Geske (46) were tied to chairs, stabbed and tortured at the Zirve Publishing House in the southeastern city of Malatya; the torture ended with their throats being slit. The publishing house they worked for printed Bibles and other Christian literature.

Four of the suspects, Abuzer Yıldırım, Cuma Özdemir, Salih Gürler and Hamit Çeker, were apprehended at the scene and immediately taken into custody, while the fifth suspect, Emre Günaydın, jumped from a third-story window in a failed attempt to escape from police. He was also taken into custody after being treated for injuries.

The murders occurred on the same day as the release of Erhan Tuncel, a key suspect in the 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink, the late editor-in-chief of the İstanbul-based Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper Agos. The release of the five suspects shocked to Christians in Turkey.

Christians feel threatened

Susanne Geske, the widow of the victim Tilmann Geske, told Today’s Zaman that she sees the release as unjust. Sharing that they have started to feel threated following the release, Geske, who lives with her children in Malatya, said: “It is a cause of distrust [towards justice] that the murderers were released [before the court issued its final verdict]. This decision has diminished people’s trust in the law.”

“The small Christian community of Turkey has been deeply shaken as five murderers of Christians in Malatya were released due to legal changes regarding the detention period,” Ziya Meral, a London-based Turkish researcher, posted on Twitter.

The five suspects have been in jail since the day of the killing. In 2011, the court was close to announcing its verdict, but the three Christians’ murders were then linked to Ergenekon, a clandestine group charged with plotting to overthrow the government, and the number of those tried in the case rose to 19, which made the case drag on. A total have 92 hearings have been conducted as part of this case.

The case’s latest hearing took place on Feb. 24, when the prosecutor submitted his statement. The court has postponed the trial until April 10, when it will give its verdict. During hearings of the case, the victims’ families as well as representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and journalists following the case were verbally threatened by the five suspects.

In the first indictment, there were nine suspects, six of whom were detained. When links with a terrorist organization were discovered, the number of suspects rose to 19 with the addition of a number of military staff and civilians, including former Gen. Hurşit Tolon, who is also one of the key suspects in the Ergenekon trial.

Many believe that the murders were premeditated, and that a campaign against missionaries in Malatya and other parts of Turkey at the time was launched by a clandestine unit called the National Strategies and Operations Department of Turkey (TUSHAD), allegedly established by Tolon in 1993. The Malatya 3rd High Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Tolon, who denied any involvement in the Zirve Publishing House massacre.

Faith in justice system lost

The Association of Protestant Churches of Turkey expressed its concern over the court’s decision in a written statement on Saturday. Noting that families of the victims and NGO activists were threatened by the suspects throughout the duration of the case’s hearings, the statement read: “As things stand, those who have been threatened are starting to feel rather uneasy. The releases have deeply saddened Christians [in Turkey] and led to them losing faith in [the] justice [system].”

Noting that the suspects of the murder will now be able to move freely in society, the statement continued: “Who will carry the moral responsibility for this shocking decision? … As Christian citizens, our own lives as well as those of our families’ are in great danger, and we are following the developments in dismay.”

Nine other suspects in the case are still in prison, including former Gen. Tolon, retired Col. Mehmet Ülger, a former Malatya gendarmerie regiment commander and Maj. Haydar Yeşil. According to Orhan Kemal Cengiz, one of the lawyers representing the victims, releasing the principal suspects of a murder case like this makes it easier for hit men to be recruited.

Cengiz, who is concerned that the release of suspects would deal a blow to the fight against shady activities of “deep state” organizations, told Today’s Zaman: “The message [made clear by the suspects’ release] paves the way for new massacres. I’m afraid that murders, which disappeared following court cases such as Ergenekon and Balyoz, will start again.”

Cengiz maintains that the suspects had been assured by an organization “deep [within the] state” that if they killed Dink and the Christian missionaries, they would eventually be released. He explained: “Now, those promises have been kept. The Zirve Publishing House murder had a particular quality to it. For the first time, it became possible to reach those behind the hit men in a legal case involving deep state. Those behind the hit men were tracked. This has also been dealt a blow [by the suspects’ release].”

Erdal Doğan, another one of the victims’ lawyers, does not believe that the shortening of the detention period is in line with democratic ideals. Noting that the government has recently passed legislation — such as amendments to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) that have placed the judiciary under much tighter control of the executive — Doğan told Today’s Zaman: “If the aim was democratization, [the government] would totally abolish the anti-terrorism law.”

Dink, known as a leading representative of Turkey’s Armenian community, was shot by an ultranationalist teenager, Ogün Samast, in broad daylight near the Agos office. The Zirve massacre was preceded by other attacks against non-Muslim individual. Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed in Trabzon in February 2006, and Dink in January 2007, sparking a debate about the safety of non-Muslims in Turkey.

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