Judge Killed in Attack On Turkish High Court

Police detain Alpaslan Arslan, who allegedly killed one judge and wounded four others in response to a court ruling further restricting Islamic dress.
Police detain Alpaslan Arslan, who allegedly killed one judge and wounded four others in response to a court ruling further restricting Islamic dress. (Associated Press)
By Yesim Borg and Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 18, 2006

ISTANBUL, May 17 -- A gunman opened fire on judges in Turkey's highest administrative court on Wednesday, killing one and wounding four after shouting "God is great!" and "We are God's ambassadors!"

Police and witnesses said the attacker, who was arrested and being interrogated by anti-terrorist police, was a lawyer who was incensed over a ruling further restricting Islamic dress in Turkey. The shooting occurred at midmorning in the heart of Ankara, the capital of a republic founded 83 years ago on principles that regard Islam as a threat to democratic governance in a country that is 99 percent Muslim.

Shortly after the ambulances carried away the wounded -- one of whom, Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin, died at the hospital after being shot in the head -- limousines began arriving with visiting dignitaries expressing condolences. One, Turkey's avowedly secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former judge, declared, "This attack is aimed at the unchangeable secular and democratic characters of the republic."

But court officials snubbed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a onetime proponent of political Islam who had publicly criticized the high court ruling that officials said incensed the gunman.

The administrative court ruled in February that under Turkish law -- which bars female employees from wearing Islamic head scarves in state workplaces -- a kindergarten teacher could be denied a promotion for covering her head on her way to school, on the grounds she set a bad example for children.

The suspect, identified as Alpaslan Arslan, "said the attack was punishment for the ruling on the head scarf," acting Chief Judge Tansel Colasan told reporters. Before opening fire with a 9mm pistol, Colasan said, the attacker shouted, "We are God's ambassadors! We are His soldiers!"

Police said they found newspaper photographs of several judges in the assailant's car, according to the semiofficial Anatolian news agency. A pro-Islamic daily, Vakit, published photos of the jurists on its front page after the ruling. Last week, one high court judge, Sumru Cortoglu, complained in a speech that "by using personal photos or information of members of the judiciary, some are trying to turn them into targets."

The shooting came with tensions already rising between Erdogan's populist Justice and Development Party and the secular establishment, which is anchored in the judiciary, the powerful military and the presidency of Sezer, whose term expires next year. Erdogan's party controls parliament, which will elect Sezer's successor, and Erdogan might seek the office first held by Turkey's secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan "is trying to open his way to the presidency," said Mehmet Farac, an expert on radical Islam at Cumhuriyet, a staunchly pro-secular daily. "However, the society is reacting to him taking the seat that belonged to Ataturk. The Islamic section reacts against this reaction. There may be new attacks."

Cumhuriyet has been attacked by firebombs three times in recent weeks, reportedly by Islamic radicals incensed by the newspaper's print and television ads accusing Erdogan's party of undermining the republic.

"I hope those who still can't see where Turkey is being dragged, who refuse to see it, will take this as a warning," Deniz Baykal, leader of Ataturk's Republican People's Party, said after Wednesday's attack. "Unfortunately, blood has spilled into politics in Turkey. Turkey is being dragged into a very dangerous situation. Everybody should come to their senses."

But key questions remained unanswered in the first hours after the attack. CNN Turk television quoted unnamed police sources as saying the suspect appeared to be linked to a radical Islamic group called Turkish Hezbollah, while the Anatolian news agency reported that he described himself to his interrogators as "an extreme nationalist."

Erdogan, who describes Islam not as a threat to Turkey's secular government but as a moral guide that informs his party's socially conservative agenda, called for restraint. "Associating today's attack with any side would not be right," he said. "We cannot accept any incident designed to hurt stability in Turkey."

Vick reported from Tehran.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company