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Grieving father sparks debate over Turkish trial

A cancer-stricken man crying over the coffin of his son has reignited a debate about the fairness of the biggest trial in Turkey's history.

ISTANBUL // A cancer-stricken man crying over the coffin of his son has reignited a debate about the fairness of the biggest trial in Turkey's history.

The man, Fatih Hilmioglu, a professor of medicine, is one of more than 300 suspects standing trial for membership in a right-wing network called Ergenekon that prosecutors say plotted to bring down the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.

The first Ergenekon trial opened in October 2008. Half a dozen trials related to Ergenekon are continuing, but there have been no verdicts so far. Mr Hilmigolu has been detained since April 2009.

Once hailed as a chance for Turkey to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, the trials have turned into a source of embarrassment for the government, which stands accused of allowing excessively long periods of detention and of denying suspects their right to a fair and speedy trial.

After three and a half years in custody, Mr Hilmioglu, who has been suffering from liver cancer, last month was granted a short leave to attend the funeral of his son Emir, 21, who was killed in a traffic accident on October 13. But the professor was not allowed to spend the night at his home in Ankara during the visit and had to sleep in a prison in the capital before being returned to a prison near Istanbul.

The authorities' treatment of the professor, seen as cold and bureaucratic by the public, has become the latest example for the growing unease about the Ergenekon trials.

In response to the increasing criticism, the government decided to introduce legislation that would make it possible for detainees such as Mr Hilmioglu to be released from prison for health reasons.

At the moment, Turkish law allows early releases only when a detainee's life is in immediate danger because of illness. But a cancer patient like Mr Hilmioglu cannot benefit from that rule if his condition is not life-threatening.

"The government feels under pressure from the public," Hayati Hilmioglu, the professor's brother, who also represents him as a lawyer, said. "We hope the new law will come into force as soon as possible."

The new law would also enable detainees to spend time at their homes during short leaves, even if they are not ill.

As photos of Fatih Hilmioglu kissing his son's coffin appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, the opposition pounced on what it said was a heavy-handed government campaign to silence critics by using the courts.

"The law and the law's global criteria are being forgotten," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader in Ankara, said after meeting Mr Hilmioglu in Ankara. "Judges do the prime minister's bidding."

At the time of his arrest on April 13, 2009, Mr Hilmioglu was the rector of the state university in Malatya, a city in Turkey's eastern Anatolian region.

He had openly voiced his criticism of the Islam-rooted government of Mr Erdogan. Among other things, he said that a government violating the secular principles of the republic should not be allowed to rule the country even if it won 95 per cent of the vote in a general election, a family member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

Statements such as that and Mr Hilmioglu's efforts to curb the influence of Islamic groups in Malatya and to enforce a ban of the Islamic veil for female students in university sealed the professor's fate, said the family member.

"Now the government keeps him [in prison], because he is considered a dangerous person, because he is not a religious person."

Mr Hilmioglu told Mr Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, that the charges against him and others were drummed up, suggesting that the Ergenekon group was a fabrication.

"We are on trial for being leaders of an organisation that doesn't exist," the professor told Mr Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader.

tseibert@thenational.ae