The trial of a Turkish-German author living as a political refugee in Cologne has begun in Istanbul. He faces charges of manslaughter and robbery. The controversial trial will shine a spotlight on Turkey's legal system.
Akhanli has been a political refugee in Germany since 1991
Nearly 20 years after fleeing to Germany from his native Turkey, author Dogan Akhanli has gone before an Istanbul courtroom on Wednesday facing charges of robbery and manslaughter.
The 53-year-old Akhanli, who has lived in Germany since 1991 and holds German citizenship, is charged with involvement in an armed robbery at a currency exchange office in Istanbul in 1989.
His lawyers told the court they would seek an acquittal for their client, who, they said, had been blackmailed under torture and was the subject of a fabricated case.
A delegation of Akhanli's supporters has traveled to Istanbul for the trial, among them German author Guenter Wallraff, who said earlier Wednesday that Akhanli had revoked statements allegedly given under torture.
"If due process is considered here, he must be released. And I expect this to happen," Wallraff said. "He is a colleague who has been innocently arrested."
His publisher Regip Zarakoglu, meanwhile, said "they couldn’t punish Akhanli for his writings, so they’re trying to pin another crime on him."
Wallraff called for Akhanli's immediate release
Germany's Foreign Ministry is also expected to be closely watching the trial. Akhanli is receiving consular assistance, and the ministry is in contact with lawyers in Cologne and Istanbul, according to a spokesperson.
Akhanli said earlier through his lawyer: "If I wasn’t being threatened with a life sentence, I’d have to laugh about my situation. I feel like Franz Kafka’s tragic-hero Josef K., and not just because I’ve been arrested even though I’m innocent."
The Cologne-based political author was arrested on August 10 after returning to Turkey for the first time since his escape to visit his ailing father who later died at the end of November without seeing his son. Since August, Akhanli has been held in a prison in the province of Tekirdag.
Following his arrest, Akhanli was also charged with a political offense, as prosecutors have said the crime was part of a move to destabilize the constitutional order in the country. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Akhanli's lawyer Haydar Erol has claimed the criminal charges are based on witness statements that were either fabricated or obtained through torture.
He said one witness, the son of the exchange office owner killed during the robbery, later disputed ever having identified Akhanli in a photograph. In addition, Erol said Akhanli's fingerprints were never found at the scene. "The scenario was produced by the police," Erol told German press agency dpa in September.
Turkey has refused to classify the Armenian massacre as genocide
A belated settling of accounts
Erol said the author's arrest was a belated settling of accounts with the political left. He has called for Akhanli's release and for the legal proceedings to be discontinued.
After the Turkish military coup in 1980, Akhanli went underground and was arrested four years later for being a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Turkey (TDKP). He was imprisoned from 1985 to 1987, during which time he said he was tortured.
Living in Cologne for the past two decades, Akhanli, who has won awards in Turkey and Germany for his writing, has worked with the research association Recherche International to uncover and study the genocides of the last century, in particular the Ottoman Empire's massacre of Armenians during World War I.
His work has led some to believe he was targeted for writing on the topic. It remains a sensitive subject in Turkey, which has refused to classify the event as genocide.
'No valid reason to keep Akhanli in custody'
Akhanli's arrest has led to demonstrations in Germany and his supporters, among them Amnesty International, fellow authors, intellectuals and politicians, plan to follow the trial closely.
"There is no valid reason to keep Akhanli in custody," said Selami Guerel, a friend and supporter. "We expect that he will be released after the first day in court."
The Berlin Academy of Arts has called for international protests against Akhanli's arrest, and along with various European human rights organization and legal associations has demanded "freedom and justice."
Author: Martin Kuebler, Darren Mara (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Rob Turner