A Belgian appeals court on Thursday acquitted seven far-left Turkish militants of charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and gave three a suspended sentence for illegal arms possession.
The ruling on the alleged members of the DHKP-C, an outlawed leftist group that aims to topple the Turkish government, came in a retrial ordered after the first trial was declared unfair for technical reasons.
Most had been found guilty in the first trial. Among the suspects was Fehriye Erdal, who escaped house arrest and remains at large. She is also wanted in Turkey for allegedly murdering an industrialist.
Dozens of Turkish supporters of the suspects applauded and cheered when the verdict was read out.
Their arrests in Belgium followed the discovery of an arms cache on the Belgian coast. The judge ruled, however, that the group had no intention of committing terrorist acts in Belgium and added it was not up to the court to assess how the suspects felt about terrorism in general.
The Turkish community in Antwerp is shocked by the acquittal says lawyer and Turkish politician Ergün Top. Antwerp Turks were furious at the decision and questioned the working of the Belgian judicial process.
A prominent member of the Turkish community, Ergün Top, says that it's as if Osama Bin Laden would have been acquitted by a Belgian court. Just like the DHKP-C, Bin Laden also didn't commit attacks in Belgium, but everybody knows though that he's a terrorist.
According to Top many Belgian Turks now think that the court of appeals is above the general principles of law. Everybody knows about the machine-guns that were caught by DHKP-C members, it is hard to deny that the organization has no terrorist sympathies.
Top is most shocked for the basis of the acquittal. "DHKP-C were not acquitted because of procedural mistaken, that I would yet understand." He says the organization was acquitted on essence and that is difficult to accept. Furthermore, the Antwerp lawyer says that the ruling is a blow to the courts in Bruges and Ghent and for the federal prosecution. "These verdict is so fundamentally different than the other decisions," he says and that it brings up questions.
According to Ergün Top it's also not unthinkable that the Antwerp decision would be changed again. The federal prosecution can turn to the Court of Cassation, and if there's a decision that mistakes were made, the entire process will start over, this time probably at the Brussels court of appeals.
The Turkish ministry of foreign affairs think that the verdict deals a blow to the international battle against terrorism and will encourage illegal groups. The DHKP-C is the Turkish and EU lists of terrorist organizations. The movement is considered responsible for numerous attacks which have killed dozens of people in Turkey since 1976.
Ankara will study the verdict in detail and decide if it's possible to challenge it, according to the ministry. "According to the first information the court had decided that the terrorist activities of the DHKP-C in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands will not influence the trial in Belgium. If that is true, that decision is a violation of the basic principles of the international battle against terrorism."
Sources: PR-inside (English), HLN (Dutch)