Al-Qa'ida trial stalls as Turkish judges rule court is 'unfit'

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The Independent Online

The trial of 69 Turkish al-Qa'ida suspects charged with suicide bombings in Istanbul last November got off to a near-farcical start yesterday, as a Turkish court opened proceedings only to rule that it was unfit to hear the case under recent changes to the law.

The trial of 69 Turkish al-Qa'ida suspects charged with suicide bombings in Istanbul last November got off to a near-farcical start yesterday, as a Turkish court opened proceedings only to rule that it was unfit to hear the case under recent changes to the law.

State security courts similar to the one expected to hear the al-Qa'ida case yesterday were abolished last month as part of legal reforms designed to bring Turkey into line with European Union standards. The courts were set up after a military coup in 1980 to hear "political crimes", generally a catch-all for far left and pro-Kurdish dissidents.

However, the message had apparently not reachedthe judges sitting yesterday. Shortly after the opening, defence lawyers charged that the court was not fit to hear the case. Later, in a written ruling, the court agreed and said that due to the legal changes it no longer had the authority to do so. The trial has been postponed until new tribunals are established.

Sixty-one people died and more than 600 were wounded in the November attacks on two synagogues, the local headquarters of HSBC bank and the British consulate in Istanbul. Roger Short, the UK consul-general, was among those killed. Vans containing explosives tore into the two synagogues during prayers on 15 November. Five days later suicide bombers in lorries ripped into the HSBC building and the consulate.

The attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qa'ida - simultaneous, well-planned suicide bombings against soft targets symbolic of Western influence. Though they were initially claimed by a little-known Turkish group called the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders' Front, investigators later said al-Qa'ida was behind them. In their indictment, prosecutors allege that Osama bin Laden suggested targets for an attack in Turkey and his al-Qa'ida network provided $150,000 (£82,000) to the Turkish Islamic militants who carried out the attacks.

Following the attacks, Turkish police attempted to disband the cell believed to be operating in Turkey. However, at least three of the alleged ringleaders remain at large and are thought to have fled the country. Police have stepped up security against the possibility of another attack ahead of a planned Nato summit in Istanbul later this month.

Prosecutors are demanding life sentences for the suspected militants Fevzi Yitiz and Osman Eken, who allegedly helped to make the bombs; Harun Ilhan, accused of recruiting militants; Adnan Ersoz, who allegedly arranged financing for the attacks and Yusuf Polat, charged with keeping watch at one of the synagogues and giving the final go-ahead for the attack. The other 64, accused of being low-level operatives and sympathisers, could face sentences ranging from four to 22 years.

The indictment claims that Habib Akdas, the 30-year-old suspected leader of the cell who is at large, and two alleged militants, Baki Yigit and Adnan Ersoz, met on several occasions with Abu Hafs al-Masri, a former top lieutenant of bin Laden. Mr Akdas was allegedly trained in bomb making at al-Qa'ida camps in Afghanistan.

Al-Masri is believed to have arranged for Mr Akdas and Mr Yigit to meet Bin Laden in 2001 in Afghanistan. Aal-Masri, alias Mohammed Atef, was killed in a US air strike in Afghanistan in November 2001.

According to the indictment Mr Yigit, who is in custody, said the Turkish cell initially proposed kidnapping members of a pro-Western Turkish business group, but the idea was rejected by Bin Laden and al-Masri. The British consulate was added to their list of targets when plans to bomb an Israeli ship in the southern port of Antalya were abandoned.

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