ISTANBUL—A prosecutor in the case for the 19 suspects accused of inciting brutal 2007 murders of three Christians in Matalya, Turkey, has been removed from High Council duty, stalling the country's long-running trials—again.

Prosecutor Hikmet Usta was probing links between the Malatya murders of three Christians and the earlier assassination of a Christian newspaper editor when he was abruptly transferred from his position last week and re-assigned prosecution duties in an Istanbul court. Usta had been preparing objections to the verdict of the Turkish Supreme Court that "no illegal group" had been behind the January 2007 murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

"There was an illegal group, and there is evidence," Usta protested to the Turkish media.

As a member of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, Usta was investigating the connections between Dink's murder and the Malatya massacre, in which two Turkish Christians and a German citizen were tortured and stabbed to death in the Zirve Christian publishing house office on April 18, 2007.

"This cannot be called a 'routine' procedure, to remove a prosecutor wanting to intensify his appeals investigation," Erdal Dogan, a plaintiff lawyer for Zirve, told Taraf newspaper on Dec. 2.

But this is not the first time prosecutors trying to uncover the real perpetrators behind the Dink and Zirve murders have been removed from their duties, notes Dogan.

In September, the Turkish Justice Ministry removed two prosecutors and two judges who had been trying the Malatya case just two days before a week of hearings on the case was to begin. The sudden changes left only the presiding judge familiar with the massive files of evidence on the murders.

The 19 suspects accused in the Zirve murders went on trial before Matalya's Third Criminal Court in early September, following the court's acceptance of a third indictment in the case in June, when allegations against primarily military officials finally went public."This indictment provides the first solid evidence that our military authorities officially assigned the named suspects to monitor and attack the Christians in Malatya," Umut Sahin from the legal committee of the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches told Open Doors News in September.

The 761-page indictment alleges that the attack by five young murderers who stabbed, tortured, and slit the throats of three Christians had been masterminded by a retired general in Turkey's 1st Army Corps and ultranationalist military officials in the Malatya gendarmerie. The gendarmerie is a law-enforcement arm of the military which has jurisdiction outside of Turkey's cities and towns.

According to the indictment, the Zirve murders were part of the so-called Cage Action Plan hatched by military officials trying to undermine the ruling Justice and Peace Party government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan through assassinations, threats, and acts of terror against Turkey's non-Muslim minorities.

But just two days before the Sept. 3 hearings began, Turkish authorities shocked the lawyers for the victims by abruptly replacing the two prosecutors, and two of the three judges, in the case, leaving only presiding judge Hayrettin Kisa familiar with the evidence in the case.

"This has seriously damaged effective progress in the trial," Dogan said in September.
Hearings resumed in mid-November with a week-long series of hearings focused on the indictments, including testimony from retired four-star general Hursit Toron, a prime suspect.

The Malatya trial is slated to resume with the 52nd hearing on Jan. 14, 2013, for another week of consecutive hearings to record testimony from the accused perpetrators still scheduled to testify.

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