MALATYA, Turkey - The first of five young Turkish Muslims on trial for torturing and killing three Christians in eastern Turkey took the witness stand last week, vigorously denying that the group had planned to kill the evangelicals.
In chilling testimony of the final hours of Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske, accused killer Hamit Ceker stated before Malatya's Third Criminal Court on January 14 , that during the savage attack on Zirve Publishing Company's office on April 18, he saw leading suspect Emre Gunaydin slit the throats of two of the Christians.
Denying that the group of young conspirators had planned to kill the two former Muslims who had converted to Christianity or their German colleague, Ceker told the judge that the confrontation turned "tense" when Aydin, who pastored a small Protestant congregation in Malatya, declared to the five young Muslims, "We are all the children of Jesus."
But the defendant claimed that he himself had no part in killing the three Christians. Although Ceker testified that they had brought along guns and a lengthy section of rope, and that each of them carried a newly purchased knife, a pair of plastic gloves and an Islamic jawshan , he insisted the purpose of the operation was to seize incriminating evidence against the Christians, not to kill them.
He testified that he and some of the others had tried to persuade Gunaydin to leave the men tied up on the floor and escape.
"No, they know me now," Gunaydin replied, according to Ceker. "I won't leave without killing them."
Ceker testified that Gunaydin then ordered suspect Salih Gurler to strangle Aydin. When Gurler tried but finally gave up and said he couldn't do it, the ringleader promptly went over and began stabbing Aydin, slashing his throat, Ceker said.
Gunaydin then took a towel to cover Geske's face and cut his throat, Ceker said, adding that he was unaware of how Yuksel died.
"I didn't see how Ugur was killed," Ceker said. "I just heard him cry out, 'Jesus!'"
A 32-year-old man from a village near Elazig engaged to be married, Yuksel died in a hospital several hours after Ceker finally unlocked the door and surrendered to the police. Aydin, 35, father of two children, and Geske, 46, a father of three, were already dead, their bodies mutilated with multiple stab wounds.
By that time, Ceker said, Gunaydin had tried to escape over the third floor balcony, falling to the pavement and suffering serious injuries.
Under cross-examination from his defense lawyer, Ceker claimed he had been intimidated by Gunaydin's threats to harm him and his family if he did not cooperate in the plot to expose and put a halt to Christian missionary activities in Malatya.
Ceker also said that Gunaydin was known to have close relations with the local police chief, so he was reluctant to report the ringleader's plot to the police. But he admitted that the night before, he and another of the defendants had sat in the hall of their dormitory, writing a letter to their families in case things did not turn out well.
"We thought that we might not come back from this incident, and that whether we returned or not, it was going to come back on our heads," Ceker said.
Ceker confirmed under questioning that the group had performed special Muslim "thanksgiving prayers" together early on the morning of the murders. But he said he didn't know the meaning of that ritual nor why they did it.
In answer to his lawyer's question as to whether he had in any way "helped the men who were tied up on the floor," Ceker claimed he had loosened the cords tightly binding Yuksel's wrists, and even slipped a packet under his head.
Ceker's comments, which came near the close of the 10-hour hearing, brought a verbal outburst from Semse Aydin, widow of Necati Aydin and a plaintiff in the case.
"They went there to kill our husbands, and then they say they did things to make them comfortable!" the widow cried out in the courtroom. "This is contemptible!"
After a second outburst moments later, the widow was ordered out of the courtroom by Judge Eray Gurtekin, although he recalled her moments later when plaintiff lawyers protested.
Prior to Ceker's testimony, two young men accused of involvement in the murder plot were called to the witness stand, one by one. The judge ordered all other defendants removed from the courtroom to prevent them from hearing and influencing each others' testimonies.
Suspect Kursat Kocadag admitted that Gunaydin had started talking against Christians to him about four months before the murders.
In a local café, Gunaydin had complained to him and other students that there were 49 "house churches" in Malatya, and that these Christian missionary activities represented a strong threat to Islam and Turkish society, he said.
He showed Kocadag a book entitled More Than a Carpenter, declaring that it "slandered Allah, our prophet and our book," Kocadag said.
"He said that we needed to penetrate them, to find out where they were getting their money, from what businessmen, and if necessary to become martyrs and kill them," Kocadag told the court.
Six weeks before the killings, Kocadag said, he agreed to hide in his home a pistol that Gunaydin gave him, saying he was afraid authorities might search his student dormitory and find it. The night before the murders, Gunaydin collected the gun, later found at the scene of the crime, from Kocadag's home.
He also went with Gunaydin to some meetings of the Nur sect of Islam, where he said about 25 university students were studying the books of Said-i Nursi, a Sufi mystic influential in Turkish politics in the mid-20th century.
Under questioning, Kocadag said that Gunaydin was not very religiously observant and admitted that he himself did nothing more than Friday prayers.
But when Kocadag refused to join Gunaydin in his plan to spy on and intimidate Christians in Malatya, he said Gunaydin stopped talking to him about it any more.
'Others' Supporting Plot
Along with murder suspect Ceker, Kocadag denied that he had any information as to who Gunaydin may have been referring to when he mentioned "others" who were supporting and encouraging the anti-missionary plot.
The second youth charged with conspiring with the murderers, Mehmet Gokce, promptly identified himself as the son of a local policeman.
Gokce claimed that he had very little contact or relationship with Gunaydin, whose family lived opposite his computer shop where he sold CDs and repaired computers.
According to Gokce, Gunaydin had simply asked him if he could help him copy a computer hard disk containing information about missionaries.
He just thought Gunaydin was "goofing around" when he said he would use the word "apple" instead of "computer" in any mobile telephone messages about the hard disk he wanted to get copied, Gokce said. He claimed he had no knowledge whatever of the group's criminal plans.
For the first time, Yuksel's mother and aging father, who suffered a severe stroke several months after his youngest son's murder, were able to attend the trial.
At one point mid-morning, as the defendants filed out of the courtroom under heavy guard, Yuksel's mother shouted at them from a nearby bench of observers, "Is your conscience troubled? Can you sleep at night?"
In comments headlined by the Turkish press the next day, widow Susanne Geske declared that she and her children who are still living in Malatya wanted to visit the murderers in prison.
"We want to meet with the killers, but I am waiting for the right time," she said. "I don't want to ask them questions; I just have something to say. My children are asking, 'When will we go to them?'"
On the eve of the second hearing, the two widows agreed for the first time since the week of the murders to be interviewed on Turkish television. The taped interviews sharing their memories of their husbands appeared on CNNTURK the evening of the trial.
Geske also reiterated that she did not believe that the slaughter was plotted only by the five young men. "I want to know who put these five people up to this, to find those who are 'behind the curtain,'" she said.
According to attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz, leading the team of plaintiff lawyers, it is vital to identify the perpetrators behind the attack.
Cengiz told Compass after the hearing that he and his colleagues were "irritated and very angry" about the killings themselves, as well as the prosecution's investigation and judiciary handling of the case.
In particular, he cited the court's refusal to hand over key evidence in the prosecution file, including documents, CDs and photographs that Cengiz said are all crucial "in order to question the defendants properly."
Last week the judge also denied permission to record the court proceedings, which would provide a complete text of all the oral arguments rather than just an abbreviated summary.
Formal requests to remove 16 files of information about the religious activities of the three Christians, and to charge the perpetrators with "religious genocide," were also denied.
The Malatya court has refused to accept as evidence the video films from surveillance cameras placed in Gunaydin's hospital room during the month he was recovering from his injuries, before he was sent to prison. According to plaintiff lawyers, the police deliberately failed to submit the tapes within the required 24-hour limit and also did not obtain formal court permission to film the suspect.
In still another "scandal" that made headlines in the Turkish media, police officials reportedly ignored standard forensic procedures by putting all the blood-stained clothes of the suspects into one container to be sent to the Ankara Criminal Laboratory, making it impossible to distinguish which individuals had the different victims' blood on their clothing.
Near the close of last week's hearing, plaintiff lawyers requested that the police investigation files regarding Necati Aydin's brother-in-law, a pastor in Izmit whom Gunaydin had reportedly vowed to kill after the Malatya murders, be added to the Malatya case.
In addition to relatives of the three victims, the January 14 hearing was observed by international press and television crews from Holland, Germany and the United States, as well as representatives from two non-governmental human rights organizations, a German diplomat and several leaders of the Turkish Alliance of Protestant Churches.
After a flood of media reports late last year, the Turkish Interior Ministry on December 8 opened a judicial investigation into allegations of a seriously flawed investigation by Malatya's state prosecutors of alleged collusion of public officials in the murders.
The following week, the Turkish Foreign Ministry confirmed that the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom and Tolerance was actively monitoring the Malatya case.
Dr. Zafer Uskul, head of the Turkish Parliament's Human Rights Investigation Commission and a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, spoke briefly to the press after observing the first few hours of the January 14 hearing.
"Everyone in Turkey has freedom of religion and belief," Uskul said. But he also admitted, "People in society need to be more tolerant. Particularly young people need to be educated on the subject of freedom of religion and belief."
The court is scheduled to resume interrogation of the remaining four suspects on February 25.
The Malatya massacre is the third in a chain of three deadly attacks against Turkey's tiny Christian minority in the past two years.
Italian Catholic priest Fr. Andrea Santoro was shot to death while kneeling after mass in his church in Trabzon in February 2006, followed by the assassination of Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink at the entrance of his newspaper office in Istanbul on January 19, 2007. The assailants in both cases were teenagers.