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7 sentenced to life in Istanbul truck bombings

The attacks in 2003 on British and Jewish targets killed nearly 60. A defendant delivers a five-hour diatribe.

February 17, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — A Turkish court handed down life sentences Friday to seven men, all accused of having links to Al Qaeda, in connection with truck bombings that ripped through central Istanbul in November 2003, killing nearly 60 people.

Dozens of other defendants received lighter sentences, ranging from three to 18 years, for their role in the attacks days apart that targeted two synagogues, the British Consulate and a London-based bank.

Pandemonium erupted in the cramped, low-ceilinged courtroom as the chief judge announced the sentences.

"A long sojourn in hell for infidels!" shouted one of the convicted men, Fevzi Yitiz.

"God is great!" cried another.

Before the sentencing, one of the principal defendants, Harun Ilhan, harangued the court for five hours with a scorching denunciation of Western mores and the secular Turkish authorities who put him on trial.

"There is a war between my world and your world," said Ilhan, the only defendant to confess to a role in the bombing plot. "I am a prisoner of war.... You can kill me, but you cannot judge me."

Among those receiving life sentences was Louai Sakka, a Syrian accused as the mastermind and chief financier of the bombings. He also made a defiant statement before the sentencing.

"We are close to victory," he proclaimed. "I'll win my freedom and once again join the jihad."

Of the 74 men who were put on trial, 26 were acquitted. Some had been caught up in what their lawyers described as an indiscriminate sweep after the bombings.

The attacks traumatized Turkey at a time when the notion of Muslims killing other Muslims in terrorist attacks was unfamiliar and shocking.

Security for the drawn-out trial was extremely heavy. Riot police massed outside the court, one specially designated for the most serious crimes. Sharpshooters were stationed on rooftops and helicopters buzzed overhead.

Inside the courtroom, the defendants, who wore street clothes and were unshackled, sat jammed together on wooden benches, flanked by ranks of green-uniformed gendarmes.

Defense lawyers for those convicted said they would appeal, citing what they called procedural and other errors by the court.

"My client was not allowed to mount a genuine defense," said Mehmet Selcuk, who represented Ilhan.

The defense team consisted of more than a dozen lawyers, some appointed by the Turkish bar and many representing multiple clients.

Turkey has no death penalty, but the life sentences handed down call for serving at least 30 years without parole. Some of them were designated "heavy" terms, with a stipulation of solitary confinement.

Some of the defendants, including Sakka, face other charges. He is accused in a 2005 plot to attack an Israeli cruise ship bound for the Mediterranean resort of Antalya, in southern Turkey, which led to his arrest.

Britain's Foreign Office issued a statement welcoming the convictions and calling the bombings "abhorrent acts." Three Britons were killed in the attacks.

A three-judge panel presided over the trial. The Turkish legal system does not provide for jury trials or allow for cross-examination of witnesses.

Several of the defense lawyers built their cases around the contention that because the bombings targeted Jewish and British interests, they did not constitute an attack on the Turkish Republic, one of the principal charges.

Other defense lawyers insisted that repeated visits by many of the accused to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya were for innocent reasons. One said his client was too busy finding a suitable apartment in Afghanistan to attend a militant training camp.

Representatives of Istanbul's Jewish community, together with British officials, made a point of attending as many of the court hearings as possible.

Gabi Talu lost his 8-year-old daughter and 82-year-old mother-in-law in the bombing of the Beth Israel Synagogue. Barred from the courtroom during the reading of the verdicts because he was not officially considered a party to the case, he waited outside.

"I still live that day; the images are so alive in my mind," he said. "To me, these people are like monsters.... These people are inhuman creatures in the shape of humans."

At one hearing after another, the defendants repeatedly challenged the authority of the court to try them.

"I could pray tonight that you won't wake up in the morning," one told the chief judge during a court session Thursday.

Ilhan, in issuing his nearly daylong diatribe before the verdict, defied an appeal from the bench to wrap up his statement.

"You've been talking for five hours," the judge said. "Sum it up."

"Are you going to try to throw me out?" Ilhan all but spat at him.

"Go ahead and try."

In the end, gendarmes carried him out of the courtroom.

laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Yesim Borg contributed to this report.

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