SILIVRI, Turkey (Compass Direct News) – After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn't even know two Christians on trial for "insulting Turkishness and Islam," a defense lawyer called the trial a "scandal."
Speaking after yesterday's hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case's initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.
"It's a scandal," Polat said. "It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence."
Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour's drive west of Istanbul.
Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday's (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.
Yesterday's three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.
The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.
But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.
He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul's Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.
"This is the extent of what I know about this subject," he concluded.
Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, "I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors' office."
The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.
"I don't know or remember the website's name or contents," the witness said, "but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don't remember exactly what."
Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, "I don't see any harm in that," adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.
For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul's security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.
Case 'Demands Acquittal'
Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey's controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, "in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal."
"There is no information, no document, no details, nothing," Polat said. "There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure."
But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, "Of course there is evidence. That's why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large 'orgut' [a term connotating an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here."
At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the "Bible research center" linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.
Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday's hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.
The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.
But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.
This week the European Commission's new "Turkey 2009 Progress Report" spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey's non-Muslim communities.
"Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion," the Oct. 14 report stated. "Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular."
In specific reference to Tastan and Topal's case, the report noted: "A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code."
The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation's legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.
"I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet," Polat said. "They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren't able to look at them in a balanced way."