Murder in Anatolia - Christian missionaries and Turkish ultranationalism

January 16, 2011, Sunday/ 12:03:00

INTRODUCTION -- In April 2007 a gruesome triple murder took place in the Central Anatolian city of Malatya. The victims, tortured, stabbed and strangled, were two Turks and one German. All three were Protestant Christian missionaries who had recently moved to Malatya. Five young men, armed with knives and covered in blood, were found at the scene of the crime only moments after it happened.

What made the Malatya killings different from an ordinary murder case was the suspicion, present from the outset, that this was not an isolated attack by a group of nationalist youngsters. As the investigation unfolded, serious questions began to emerge, which have not yet been answered. Were anti-government elements of the Turkish state – or, more specifically, secret networks within the Turkish gendarmerie and ultranationalists linked to them – involved? Was the murder of missionaries in Malatya an operation by Turkey's so-called "deep state" to destabilise an elected government by targeting Christian "enemies" of the Turkish nation?[2]

This has certainly been the impression of the team of lawyers, a who-is-who of Turkey's most prominent human rights defenders, who have been representing the families of the victims in the Malatya trial that began in November 2007. From the very beginning these lawyers have drawn attention to the anti-Christian and anti-missionary campaigns in Turkey that were supported by a number of ultranationalist associations and writers and which had gained intensity in the period leading up to the Malatya murder. They also underlined that the murdered Christians had in fact been under permanent close observation by the gendarmerie and that the main murder suspect, Emre Gunaydin, had close contacts with the police. They pointed out that the gendarmerie was monitoring missionary activity in close cooperation with academics at Malatya University, whose rector was an outspoken ultranationalist, regularly meeting with leaders of the Turkish military.

As the Malatya trial unfolded, many more links have emerged between the Malatya murders and ultra-nationalists elsewhere in Turkey who have since been arrested for plotting to overthrow the government, for which, prosecutors have argued, they had formed a terrorist network called Ergenekon.[3] Witnesses in Malatya explicitly linked the murders of the missionaries to an infamous institution much discussed in Turkey in the 1990s as being responsible for a series of mysterious assassinations, the secret Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-terrorism Department (Jandarma Istihbarat ve Terorle Mucadele, or JITEM) together with one of its alleged founders, a Turkish ultranationalist and retired gendarmerie general, Veli Kucuk. Kucuk himself played a leading role in anti-Christian campaigns in Istanbul which preceded the assassination of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.[4] Both in Malatya and in Istanbul the local branches of the ultranationalist Grey Wolf youth organisation (Ulku Ocaklari) had also organised demonstrations against Christians. In 2008 both Veli Kucuk and Levent Temiz, the head of the Istanbul branch of the Ulku Ocaklari, who had personally threatened journalist Hrant Dink, were arrested and put on trial, charged with being members of Ergenekon.

The lawyers representing the Malatya victims' families have also pointed to similarities between different attacks on Christians in 2006 and 2007. Hrant Dink was killed in Istanbul in early 2007, shortly before the Malatya murders, by another young ultranationalist, who had in fact been under permanent observation by the gendarmerie and police. The alleged instigator in the Hrant Dink murder case, Yasin Hayal, who is currently on trial, had numerous links to the gendarmerie. Yasin Hayal paid regular visits to the Trabzon branch of the gendarmerie intelligence department, whose branch director supposedly described Hayal as "a solid boy, a clean one, [who] will do good work in the future."[5] This notwithstanding the fact that in 2002 Yasin Hayal had beaten the Catholic priest in the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon so badly that the priest was in coma for days (in 2006 the successor priest in Santa Maria Church, Italian Andrea Santoro, was killed by another ultranationalist youth). In addition Hayal's brother-in-law had been a gendarmerie informant who warned his superiors in the gendarmerie in Trabzon in 2006 that Hrant Dink would be murdered.[6]

The lawyers representing the Malatya victims' families argued in a long letter to the court in April 2010 for the missionary murder case to be merged with one of the Ergenekon trials. They also pointed to the Cage Operation Action Plan ("Kafes Operasyonu Eylem Plani"), an alleged plot prepared by parts of the Turkish military to intimidate and assassinate non-Muslims in Turkey in order to create an atmosphere of chaos. The plan was made public in 2009. The first sentence of the plan refers to the killings of Priest Santoro (in Trabzon in 2006), the murder of Hrant Dink (in 2007) and the Malatya murders as "operations".[7] The judges in Malatya have not yet made a decision on this request by the lawyers.

So far 30 court hearings have taken place in the Malatya trial. At the most recent hearing in December 2010 a new defence lawyer representing the suspects once again accused the murdered Christians of "planning to eliminate our religion, dividing up our country, bribing our people and financially supporting terror organisations." He also tried to intimidate the judges, shouting that "this is a Protestant court."[8] The next hearing will take place on 20 January 2011. Considering the seriousness of the charges, it is striking how little attention has been paid to the Malatya trial in recent months in Turkish and international media. For anybody who is genuinely interested in understanding contemporary Turkish politics, and the spectacular court cases which currently look into the dark world of ultranationalist associations and their links to different parts of the state, the Malatya murder trial is a very good place to start.

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