Islamist lawyer kills top judge in gun attack on Turkish court

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A gunman shouting "Allah is Great" struck at the heart of Turkey's secular establishment yesterday, killing a judge and wounding four others at the highest administrative court.

The attacker, a lawyer, used his ID to get past security at the Council of State in the capital, Ankara. Armed with a plastic-coated Glock pistol, he made his way to the eighth floor, where the second chamber was in session. He broke into the room and unloaded two clips from his pistol, shouting, "I am a soldier of Allah", witnesses said. Police caught him trying to flee using a back door. He was named by Turkish media as Alpaslan Aslan, 29.

The court is best known for its strict upholding of secular laws, in particular a ban on headscarves in universities and public offices which has become a rallying point for Islamists. The ban dates back to Turkey's founder Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who abolished religious dress and adopted a Swiss-based legal code in 1923. Tension between secularists and Islamists has plagued Turkey ever since.

One of the injured judges, Mustafa Birden, made headlines earlier this year when he ruled that teachers, who are banned from wearing the Islamic headscarf at work, could not cover their heads even on their way to school. He has reportedly received death threats since then. One Islamist newspaper printed photographs of him and other judges from the court's second chamber, which deals with education issues.

The court's ruling was also criticised by the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ruling party has Islamist roots. The issue is close to his heart - his wife wears a headscarf and his daughters are at university in the US because of the ban.

The main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) blamed Mr Erdogan for fostering radical Islam. "I hope those who still can't see where Turkey is being dragged, who refuse to see it, will take this as a warning," said the CHP leader Deniz Baykal. "Turkey is being dragged into a very dangerous situation. Everybody should come to their senses." Mr Erdogan, who has disavowed his radical Islamist past and is widely credited for securing the start of Turkey's accession talks with the European Union, has come under fire from secularist circles in recent weeks.

In February, his government angered the West by welcoming a Hamas leader. Soon after, he nominated an unlikely Islamic banker to head the central bank, a choice promptly quashed by the firmly secularist President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

"This attack will go into the history of the republic as a dark stain," Mr Sezer said. "These attacks will never reach their goal," he said, adding that the justice system would not be intimidated and would fulfil its duty with "loyalty to the secular and democratic republic".

Mr Sezer later visited the administrative court and said: "This attack is aimed at the unchangeable secular and democratic characters of the Republic. No one should doubt that ... these will be protected forever."

General Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff, condemned "this vile attack with hate". The Ankara bar association warned Mr Erdogan's government not "to encourage the enemies of the secular regime" while members of the administrative court criticised the government for not protecting the judiciary.

"The attack on the court is not going to develop into a clash between secularists and Islamists," said a commentator, Mehmet Ali Birand. "But it is a wake-up call for everyone."

The European Union enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, said Turkey must immediately step up reform efforts to avoid a confrontation with the EU when accession talks resume later this year. "That is the best and only way to avoid a train crash later this year in the negotiations between the European Union and Turkey," he said.