Turkey orders arrests over Gaza flotilla raid

Istanbul court asks Interpol to issue arrest warrants for Israeli military chiefs over 2010 raid on Gaza-bound aid ship.

The Israeli commanders are being tried in absentia at Turkish criminal court in Istanbul. [IHH photo]

Istanbul’s 7th High Criminal Court has ordered the arrest of four former Israeli military commanders over the killings of nine Turkish human rights activists on the 2010 flotilla to Gaza.

The court, which handed down the order on Monday, will also ask Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for the four men.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking life sentences for former Israeli military chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi, former navy chief Eliezer Marom, former military intelligence head Amos Yadlin and former air force intelligence chief Avishai Levy.

The decision comes after the men refused to attend court or present a defence in the ongoing criminal trial. They’re being tried in absentia on charges brought by Turkish aid group Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and the victims’ families.

Gulden Sonmez, a leading lawyer in the case acting on behalf of IHH, told Al Jazeera the court order was an important development.

“There is a duty upon Israel to extradite the defendants under the European Extradition Convention, to which both Israel and Turkey are signatories,” she said.

Ibrahim Bilgen (right) was killed by Israeli fire while on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.  [Ismail Bilgen photo]

“Additionally, both countries are Interpol member states. If Interpol issues a red notice, as we expect it will do, Israel will be bound by its international obligations to arrest  the defendants.”

Reacting to cynicism over whether the arrest warrants will be taken seriously in Israel, she added, “We think it will be of great interest to the international community as to whether Israel abides by its international obligations or, as we have come expect, entirely disregards the rule of law.”

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the court’s decision as a “ridiculous provocation”.

“If this is the message that the Turks want to send to Israel, it was perfectly well understood,” the official told AFP. Israel has previously denounced the case as a “show” being held in a “kangaroo court”.

Rising death toll

Nine human rights activists were killed when Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a flotilla of six, in international waters. An earlier UN investigation described at least six of the deaths as “summary executions”.

A tenth man, 51-year-old Ugur Suleyman Söylemez, died on Saturday after spending four years in a coma as a result of his injuries.

Israel’s own investigation exonerated its soldiers, and stated that they acted lawfully in self-defence in the face of violent resistance.

Refusing compensation

The incident sparked widespread condemnation and a major diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel.

In recent months Turkish government officials have indicated they’re close to signing a deal to normalise relations. Last year Israel issued a formal apology, and has offered to pay compensation in return for immunity from any liability over the assault.

However, the families have publicly refused the offer.

Ismail Bilgen, whose father Ibrahim Bilgen was among the nine killed, told Al Jazeera: “From the beginning we set some conditions. We want them to remove the blockade of Gaza first. An apology and compensation come second.”

“Israel thinks it can buy us off with money, but what we want is justice – to reach the goals of our fathers and brothers on the Mavi Marmara,” he said.

Forensic evidence indicates that Ismail’s 61-year-old father, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot from above, then shot twice in the back, and finally shot at close range in the side of the head with a beanbag round that entered his brain.

“The court has taken a stand on the side of justice. We want to show Israel is not beyond judgement. Today we see Ratko Mladic facing justice, he also thought he was above the law. The world is changing, Israel is becoming isolated, and more conscientious people are taking action.”

Lawyers for the families are also attempting to file a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

They have told Al Jazeera the case is in the preliminary investigation stage and the prosecutor will decide on whether to proceed in the coming weeks.

Follow Hassan Ghani on Twitter: @hassan_ghani