Testing Turkish justice.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Oct. 14 2004 6:09 PM

Testing Turkish Justice

The "Caliph of Cologne" is sent home to stand trial.

Germany has deported the self-styled "Caliph of Cologne," Metin Kaplan, to his homeland of Turkey, grabbing headlines across Europe and prompting editors to again ponder Turkey's application to join the European Union. Kaplan's legal battle with German authorities—and his 21-year residence in Germany—looks to be at an end. The Islamic radical has long been a wanted man in Turkey, where he has called for his followers to overthrow the secular Turkish Republic and replace it with an Islamic regime. But German courts were reluctant to deport Kaplan, mindful of Turkey's reputation for brutal treatment of its prisoners. Armed with diplomatic assurances from Ankara that Kaplan would not be tortured, a state court in Cologne ruled that there was no reason for Kaplan to remain in the country.

In Turkey, the daily Aksamgreeted news of the handover as another European vote of confidence in the country's judicial reforms, following the recommendation issued last week that Turkey could begin negotiations to join the 25-member club of nations. Aksam called the extradition "a great gesture from Germany to Turkey as it tries to enter the EU." Speaking to the Turkish press—and, presumably, the world—Turkish justice minister Cemil Cicek pledged that Kaplan would receive a fair trial.

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Die Welt, a right-of-center German paper openly hostile to Turkish EU membership, appeared to bend somewhat in its opposition—but only while calling into question the charges against Kaplan. The coming Kaplan trial will be a "litmus test for Turkey's EU aptitude," the paper wrote. "Now the Turkish republic must show to what extent it is based on the rule of law, because the plot accusations against Kaplan sound doubtful and artificial." (Turkish translation via Al Jazeera; Germany translation via BBC Monitoring.)

The plot for which Kaplan stands charged involves a suicidal pilot crashing a plane loaded with explosives into the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, a figure revered in Turkey as the founder of the modern Turkish state. The plan, eerily similar to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., is alleged to have been scheduled to coincide with celebrations of the republic's 75th anniversary in 1998. The charges amount to nothing more than a "set-up," Agence France-Press quoted Kaplan's attorney saying, following an appearance in an Istanbul courtroom where Kaplan was forced to wear a suit rather than his customary turban and robes.

Few in Germany will shed tears for Kaplan, who mobilized against the very constitutional principals that kept him safe in Germany, says Badische Zeitung. (Translation via Deutsche Welle radio.) In fact, Kaplan has led a life more akin to that of a mafia gangster than an aspiring caliph: Last year he finished a four-year jail term for incitement to murder; when a rival claimed leadership of the movement founded by Kaplan's father, Kaplan issued a fatwa to have him killed. Masked gunmen soon entered the home of Ibrahim Sofu, the rival caliph, and shot him dead. A BBC profile reports that Kaplan actually claimed welfare benefits while living in Cologne—that is, until some 2 million Deutsche marks were discovered in his flat. Kaplan was jailed in 2000; in 2001, following the passage of German anti-terror laws in the wake of Sept. 11, his organization was banned.

It is unclear if Turkey's recent legal reforms prompted the German court to finally hand over Kaplan. As Human Rights Watch points out, "diplomatic assurances" that a suspect will not be tortured are not usually sufficient to overcome the reluctance of European courts to extradite a suspect. Indeed, a German court explicitly ruled in 2003 that such assurances, in Kaplan's case, did not provide sufficient protection to the accused.

Since his release from jail last year, Kaplan had walked free until Tuesday, when he was picked up at an Internet cafe by German police and whisked onto a private plane to Istanbul.

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.