Christian editor's murder trial seen as test for Turkey

Supporters of slain Turkish Armenian editor Hrant Dink demanded justice on Monday at a third hearing in the trial of his suspected killers, in a case seen as a test for democracy and human rights in Turkey.

The murder of Dink, who hails from Turkey's 60,000-strong Christian Armenian community, has also shone a spotlight on religious intolerance in this mainly Muslim but secular country.

Last April, three Protestants -- two Turks and a German -- had their throats slit at a Bible publishing house. Several Christian clergymen have been attacked, most recently an Italian priest in his church in the Aegean port of Izmir.

Dink was killed outside his Istanbul office in January 2007 by an ultra-nationalist teenage gunman. He had received death threats from far-right groups over his calls for Turkey to accept its role in the mass killings of Armenians in 1915.

The trial of the gunman and 18 others has taken on greater urgency since the recent arrests of another 29 people, including ex-army officers, as part of a probe into a far-right gang said to be behind a series of killings, including that of Dink.

The European Union, which Turkey aims to join, is also closely following the Dink case.

"This stain must be wiped away for the sake of a Turkey in which people are not tried or punished for their thoughts," said a statement of Dink's supporters, including writers, journalists and parliamentarians.

Demonstrators waved banners reading "Justice for Hrant".

"We consider it the minimum requisite to bring about a ruling that reaches all the people and organisations that are behind this case," the statement said.

Many Turks suspect the involvement of a "deep state" in Dink's murder. "Deep state" is code for ultra-nationalists allegedly operating in the security forces and state bureaucracy who are willing to break the law for political aims.

Turkish media have chronicled a series of police lapses in the handling of the Dink case which newspapers say suggest official attempts to protect those who plotted the crime.


SUSPECT'S CLAIM

Kemal Aytac, a lawyer representing Dink's widow Rakel, said one suspect, who is believed to have provided the murder weapon, told the court on Monday he had been taking orders from security personnel in Istanbul and the Turkish capital Ankara.

"We don't expect a verdict today and we have not testified yet," Aytac added.

Last month, in a separate case, police arrested ultra-nationalists whom they suspect of plotting bombings and assassinations to sow chaos in Turkey and help provoke a military takeover in 2009.

Prosecutors have declined to comment on the charges against the 29 suspects, but Turkish newspapers have said the gang, known as "Ergenekon", was also probably behind Dink's murder.

Dink was hated by Turkish nationalists for his stance on the sensitive issue of the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One. He had urged reconciliation between Turks and Armenians based on an acceptance of past wrongs.

Dink had received a suspended jail sentence before his death under article 301 of Turkey's penal code, for insulting "Turkishness" in his writings on the mass killings. The EU is demanding that Turkey scrap or amend the article.

Up to 50 lawyers tried to attend Monday's hearing, though only 17 were allowed into the courthouse. Security was tight, with police in riot gear stationed at the courthouse entrance.

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