Shadows Fall on Killing in Turkey

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

ISTANBUL -- Six weeks after a gunman killed one of Turkey's highest-ranking judges and wounded four others, the case has descended into the murk that invariably envelops politically potent cases in this country.

Key facts in the case remain elusive. So does the background of the confessed assailant. Alparslan Arslan appears to have close links to the Islamic militants deemed a threat to Turkey's secular establishment -- but also to shadowy ultranationalist groups with a history of using violence in the name of defending the state.

"This state, this country, this flag are mine," Arslan said in court on May 21, four days after barging into a meeting of the Council of State jurists, Turkey's highest administrative court, and opening fire. "They will be so forever."

His declaration underscored the ambiguities and contradictions that fuel competing interpretations of a sensational crime that at first appeared to be straightforward.

"One thing is very clear," said Mehmet Ali Kislali, an author and newspaper columnist. The attack "is the fruit of the general situation in Turkey and can be used for all purposes."

The spin appears to have begun while the smell of cordite still hung in the air May 17. Arslan admitted to shooting the judges because "I was angry at the head-scarf decision" -- the court's stringent new ruling limiting the wearing of Islamic head scarves by public employees.

But the assailant denied shouting "God is greatest" and "I am a soldier of Allah" during the attack, as was widely reported the day of the shootings. The judiciary official who quoted the remarks to reporters turned out not to have been in the room at the time.

The following day, thousands of citizens surged onto capital streets vowing to defend the secular nature of the Turkish republic. The chief of Turkey's military urged more demonstrations.

But in the following days the picture of Arslan fogged over. In his car was a press card issued by an ultranationalist press agency, according to Turkish news accounts. As a lawyer, he had represented the former head of another ultranationalist group.

Rumors surfaced that Arslan was in frequent phone contact in the hours before the shooting with a shadowy former military officer who was taken into custody in an Istanbul hospital, where he was being treated for a knife wound in the chest, possibly self-inflicted. The man was later freed.

"If you go into details about those who seem to be involved, you become confused," Kislali said. "Otherwise, it seems very obvious. You can say very easily that it's the work of Islamists -- but, but . . ."

But things are not always what they seem in Turkey, as a hearing Tuesday in a different case demonstrated.

Tuesday's proceeding arose from the events of November 1996, when a Mercedes crashed in the town of Susurluk. The passengers turned out to be a senior police official, a feudal lord, a former beauty queen and one of Turkey's most notorious gangsters, who was found to have a half-dozen diplomatic passports and a trunk full of pistols and silencers. The crash confirmed suspicions that elements within the Turkish state consort with criminals in the name of protecting the state.

"The debate in our country is about who has sovereignty," said Fikri Saglar, who served on the parliamentary commission that investigated the Susurluk crash. "The parliament says sovereignty is with the people, that in a democratic system people vote for their rulers.

"The military-bureaucratic state believes that sovereignty belongs to them, and the people in their ignorance make wrong choices that endanger the state."

The tension has played out publicly since 2002, when Turks elected a new government whose proudly Muslim identity is regarded as a threat by Turkey's secular establishment. The wives of senior elected officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been barred from official ceremonies because they observe Muslim teachings to cover their hair.

But the shooting of the judges over a ruling on head scarves brought tensions to a visceral new level.

"Murderers!" mourners shouted at cabinet ministers from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party who showed up at the slain judge's funeral.

At the same time, questions about Arslan's background suggested the hand of the "deep state," the term commonly used in Turkey to describe forces assumed to be at play when the facts around political violence recede into shadow.

"A treacherous gang has emerged from behind the bloody plot," Erdogan told a party caucus. "This attack targeted our country's ever-increasing democratic progress."

Saglar said the shootings may well have been engineered to provoke a public reaction against Erdogan's government. No avowedly secular party has risen to challenge its two-thirds majority in parliament, leaving open the way for Erdogan's ascension to Turkey's presidency, an office of particular significance to secularists.

"For me it is clear that behind this attack is what we call the deep state," Saglar said. "I believe the aim is to create a major reaction in the society by an attack on one of the major institutions in the state and to turn the society against the current government."

The episode also highlighted the weakness of Turkey's embattled judiciary. The lax security at the court on the day of the shooting was emblematic. Poorly funded and derelict, the typical Turkish courtroom summons all the majesty of a bus depot.

Critics contend that the neglect is intended in part to keep the system from developing the independence democracy requires. The pliability of Turkish courts was widely noted in January when Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish ultranationalist who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, was released from prison. After an international outcry, a Turkish court ordered him jailed again eight days later.

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