Turkish Court Releases Jailed Christian in Southeast

Thursday, July 5, 2001

Video Clips in Churchyard Suspected of Being Anti-State Propaganda
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, July 5 (Compass) -- An Assyrian Christian arrested a month ago for taking home videos in an ancient churchyard in Turkey's heavily militarized Southeast was ordered released today by Diyarbakir's State Security Court.

Ibrahim Konutgan, 27, has been jailed since June 8 on suspicion of attempting organized propaganda against the state. A formal statement is expected from the state prosecutor's office on the case within the next few days, his lawyer Kadir Pekdemir confirmed.

Konutgan was arrested by Turkish security police in Idil, a town in Sirnak province some 12 miles north of the Syrian border. Although born in Idil and still a Turkish citizen, Konutgan has lived in Europe since he was 10 years old.

Together with two others, Konutgan was reportedly observed videotaping in the graveyard of Idil's St. Mary's Church, located adjacent to facilities of the Sirnak 2nd Border Battalion of the Turkish army.

The Assyrian Christian's companions were his nephew Musa Konutgan, 20, a Swiss citizen visiting Turkey; and 18-year-old Bilal Gulec, son of the Public Registration Office director in Idil.

According to their families in Europe, the two young Assyrians were taking footage with Musa's video camera for their relatives who had immigrated from Idil to Switzerland and Germany. "It was just for nostalgic reasons," Musa's father Cebrail Konutgan told Compass by telephone from Gebensdorf-Baden, Switzerland. "We wanted them to take it for our children, who have never been back there to see our home village."

Both Ibrahim Konutgan and Gulec were jailed in Midyat during an official investigation into the case by the state prosecutor's office. Although Musa Konutgan was questioned and required to sign a formal statement for the authorities, his foreign passport proved an asset. As a Swiss citizen he was released the same day, under orders from the police to leave Turkey within two weeks.

"If Musa was a Turkish citizen, they would have kept him under arrest all these weeks, like Ibrahim," Cebrail Konutgan commented.

Konutgan and Gulec were discharged without bail from the Midyat Central Prison by 7 p.m. today and allowed to return to Idil. Konutgan's lawyer said he expected the local state prosecutor to file his written conclusions on the case as early as tomorrow or next week.

Pekdemir said his client was in good spirits when he was allowed a prison visit with him 10 days after his arrest, although the detained Christian could not understand any reason for his arrest. Referring to the suspicions that prompted his client's arrest, Pekdemir said, "There is simply nothing serious at all in this."

Konutgan was in his fifth semester as a law student in Konstanz University in southern Germany until last November, when his family said he was "by mistake" deported back to Turkey.

According to his brother Ishak Konutgan, who spoke to Compass from Pfullendorf, Germany, judicial attempts to reverse the deportation and clarify a legal channel for Ibrahim's return to Germany have been in process for the past seven months.

Meanwhile, a June 15 article in the leftist "Radikal" daily identified Gulec as an announcer for Medya TV, a Europe-based Kurdish station beamed into Turkey. From Denderleeuw, Belgium, a representative of Medya TV denied that Gulec had any contact or working relationship with the TV station, long accused by Ankara of supporting the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

"Anyone who looks at these video clips understands that they were just playing around," Gulec's initial court-appointed lawyer Kemal Ayyildiz told "Radikal." "There is no ideological content to the film footage at all; they were completely joking around." The lawyer said the film included footage of historic and tourist places in Idil and Midyat, with no military locations except for the battalion situated next to St. Mary's Church.

"But because the church is exactly adjacent to the army there," Ayyildiz said, "wide-angle shots taken there included the military site." Another video clip reportedly showed Ibrahim Konutgan lighting a candle inside a church, inviting "all our people in Europe to return to Mesopotamia."

Thousands of Assyrian Christians living in Turkey's war-torn Southeast immigrated to Europe during the late 1980s and 1990s, fleeing the civil war launched in 1984 by PKK separatists against the Turkish state. At least 37,000 lives were lost in the conflict, which since the capture, trial and death sentence of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan two years ago has been reduced to sporadic fighting.

But some 200,000 Turkish soldiers still patrol the region, with all the main roads dotted by recurring roadblocks. Village guards armed and hired by the state in effect control the villages and towns, some of them occupying lands occupied since the 5th century by Assyrian Christians.

In a June 15 opinion piece in the "Turkish Daily News," columnist Mehmet Ali Birand complained about "hard-nosed" decision-makers in the government who "brazenly rough up the minorities" for so-called "security" reasons.

"They do not accept that there could be Syriacs [Assyrians], Kurds, Greeks or Armenians living in Turkey . that have exactly the same rights as anyone known as a Turkish citizen," Birand declared. The columnist said he was referring not to measures curbing terrorism, but to "the general treatment meted out to anyone not of Turkish origin."

"We should know that as long as we cannot escape seeing minorities as the enemies of the Turkish state, we will not be able either to leave them in peace, or ourselves. It is not laws, but heads that should be changed," Birand concluded.

2001 Copyright, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.