Turkey Releases Men Accused of Torturing, Slitting Throats of 3 Christians, Put Under House Arrest

(Photo: Reuters)Syriac Christians from Turkey and Syria attend a mass at the Mort Shmuni Syriac Orthodox Church in the town of Midyat, in Mardin province of southeast Turkey in this February 2, 2014 file photo.

A law passed earlier this month seeking to reform Turkey's criminal justice system has allowed five men accused of killing three Christians to be placed under house arrest.

Emre Günaydın, Cuma Özdemir, Hamit Çeker, Salih Gürler and Abuzer Yildirim are suspected of torturing and slitting the throats of Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske in Malatya, a city in the eastern part of the country, in 2007. The men were previously placed in prison as they awaited trial, for what are believed to be religiously motivated attacks, as court records have indicated that suspects claimed they were "defending their country and religion, Islam."

In the seven years since the death of the two Turks and one German, the trial has been delayed several times; once when a witness testified that the defendants were also involved in a plot against the government, and several other instances, when prosecution witnesses failed to appear in court.

According to Morning Star News, "Some of those witnesses were under the custody of other government agencies when they were supposed to report to court, arousing suspicions that they were deliberately prevented from testifying."

Umut Sahin, general secretary for the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, accused the defendant's lawyers of deliberately delaying the case.

"There are three main reasons this trial has taken so long. The committee of judges overseeing the case has been changed two to three times. Each time it is changed, the new set of judges have to familiarize themselves with the case. Suspects and witnesses who were in the military could not be questioned until years into the case … The defending lawyers have used all kinds of legal tactics to draw out the trial, but we are not aware of any intentional efforts by other bodies to delay the trial," said Sahin.

Currently, some are worried that the defendants will attempt to escape Turkey before the next hearing in April. If convicted, the men could potentially face life sentences in prison. Four out of the five men have attempted to escape previously, though all were caught and returned to prison.

Under house arrest, the men must wear electronic monitoring devices.

Of the victims, Aydin and Yuksel both converted to Christianity from Islam. Tilmann was a German national. Both Tilmann and Aydin were married with children, while Yuksel was engaged.

Under a criminal justice reform, signed into law at the beginning of March by President Abdullah Gul, defendants may only serve a maximum of five years of pre-trial detention, a 50 percent decrease.

Turkey's government is officially secular, although the country is overwhelmingly Muslim. Only .02 percent of the 81 million population are Christian or Jew.