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Turkish court suspends trial of Al-Qaeda suspects

A Turkish state security court declared itself incompetent in the trial of 69 suspects indicted over four devastating suicide attacks in Istanbul, effectively suspending the case. Both the prosecution and defense lawyers challenged the court's authority on the ground that parliament voted to abolish the state security courts in early May.
Yusuf Polat, one of the 69
Yusuf Polat, one of the 69
Turkish court suspends trial of Al-Qaeda suspects amid legal jumble

Mon May 31, 3:53 PM ET

ISTANBUL (AFP) - A Turkish state security court declared itself incompetent in the trial of 69 suspects indicted over four devastating suicide attacks in Istanbul, effectively suspending the case.

The decision came just hours after the high-profile trial started.

Both the prosecution and defense lawyers challenged the court's authority on the ground that parliament voted to abolish the state security courts in early May.

The two sets of car bombings, the worst such incidents in Turkish history, targeted two synagogues on November 15 and the British consulate and the British-based HSBC bank on November 20, claiming 63 lives, including British consul Roger Short.

According to the charge sheet, a local cell of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network was behind the carnage, which also left some 600 people injured and caused massive destruction.

Under Monday's ruling, the court will continue working until Friday, dealing with merely procedural matters, after which the case will be effectively frozen, lawyer Hasip Kaplan said.

"The process will stop after Friday and we will be waiting for the introduction of the new courts," he told AFP.

A constitutional article regulating the state security courts, which deal with political and terrorist crimes, was scrapped as part of efforts to bring Turkey closer to European Union democracy standards.

But parliament has yet to pass a related law on how those courts will be transformed.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said after a cabinet meeting later in the day that the government would send the draft law to parliament on Tuesday, Anatolia news agency reported.

"We will try to have it adopted next week," he added.

The heaviest charge in the 127-page indictment -- "attempting to change the constitutional order by force" -- was levelled against five of the defendants, described as the leaders of the Al-Qaeda cell in Turkey.

If convicted, the five -- Yusuf Polat, Fevzi Yitik, Osman Eken, Adnan Ersoz and Harun Ilhan -- would face life imprisonment, without a chance of parole.

The five were among 12 suspects who appeared before the court Monday.

Several defendants pulled their jackets over their heads to avoid the cameras as they were escorted into the packed courtroom by security forces.

Because of their large number, defendants were to appear before court in several groups between until Friday.

Two other defendants, Metin Ekinci and Suleyman Ugurlu, face prison terms ranging from seven-and-a-half to 22.5 years for "taking an active part in an attempt to change the constitutional order by force."

The remaining suspects risk between four-and-a-half and 22.5 years in jail on charges of "being leaders of an illegal organization," "belonging to an illegal organization" and "aiding an abetting an illegal organization."

Of the 69 suspects indicted, 50 are in custody while 19 are free on bail.

Nine suspects remain at large, including Habip Aktas, the alleged head of the Turkish Al-Qaeda cell who is said to have ordered the Istanbul bombings.

The indictment said Aktas had met with a senior Al-Qaeda leader and received his permission to carry out attacks in Turkey.

Finance for the bombings came from organization members in Europe and Iran, it said.

The prosecution also said the militants did not see Turkey, a mainly Muslim but secular nation, as a Muslim country but considered it to be a "battleground."

The indictment said some members of the Turkish cell had met with bin Laden in person and several had received training in camps operated by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan (news - web sites) and Pakistan.

Turkish authorities said in December they had dismantled the group behind the attacks and police were hunting for half a dozen other suspects who were thought to have fled abroad.