ISTANBUL (Compass) -- A state security court in eastern Turkey acquitted Syrian Orthodox priest Yusuf Akbulut on charges of "provoking religious enmity" by his comments recorded and published last October in the Turkish media.
The parish priest of St. Mary's Church in Diyarbakir, Fr. Akbulut had been indicted for declaring to the Turkish press that his minority Christian community had been among the victims of the alleged Armenian genocide carried out by Turks in 1915.
In the third and final hearing on the case on April 5, the state prosecutor declared that analysis of a video recording of the priest's comments indicated that this case was "an issue of freedom of thought." Although Fr. Akbulut had in fact made the statements quoted in the Turkish press, the prosecutor observed, these privately stated opinions did not constitute a public attempt to incite hatred.
Defense attorney Abdul Kadir Pekdemir had argued that certain journalists, who had tried in an unethical manner to contrive a sensational scoop from the clergyman's informal comments, had deliberately targeted his client. Fr. Akbulut had testified that he refused to be interviewed and agreed only to talk to the journalists "off the record."
Accordingly, with no proof found to substantiate the indictment, the prosecutor asked the court to acquit the defendant.
The judicial bench required less than five minutes of consultation before announcing their verdict. Many observers in the courtroom reportedly broke into applause when the presiding judge announced the acquittal.
"This is a very positive and important decision for Turkey," Pekdemir told Compass by telephone from Diyarbakir. "I believe it can only help our relations with Europe, to emphasize the direction we are going to encourage and strengthen freedom of thought among all our citizens."
Although a number of international observers and local press attended the previous hearings on December 21 and February 22, the courtroom was even more crowded during the April 5 hearing, an observer told Compass. "There was a large Swedish delegation and two members of the German Parliament, along with other diplomatic representatives, and lots of press people," the source said.
Fr. Akbulut, 36, had been arrested and interrogated for 18 hours by security police on October 5, the day after the newspaper and TV reports quoting him were released. He subsequently appeared before State Prosecutor Oner Tuncay Ipek, who issued an indictment against him on October 18. If convicted of violating Article 312 of the Turkish penal code, the priest could have been jailed for up to three years.
Since last fall, various foreign governments have tabled resolutions labeling the death of Armenians during World War I as genocide. Seen as a political ploy, the "genocide resolutions" have sparked a fierce debate within Turkey, where the government categorically rejects the accusations against its Ottoman forebears.
· Assyrian Awareness Campaign
· Father Akbulut Acquitted on All Charges http://www.atour.com/~assyrians/actions/20010405c.html
· Turkish State Security Council (SSC) Commissioned a Report on the Assyrians http://www.atour.com/government/docs/20010321a.html
· Turkish National Security Council's report on the Assyrians (analysis)