Human Rights Watch has accused Syria's regime of hiding hundreds of detainees held in its crackdown on dissent from Arab observers visiting the country to assess implementation of a peace deal.
"Syrian authorities have transferred perhaps hundreds of detainees to off-limits military sites to hide them from Arab League monitors now in the country," the global watchdog said in a statement late Tuesday. "The Arab League should insist on full access to all Syrian sites used for detention, consistent with its agreement with the Syrian government."
On Tuesday, a group of Arab League observers visited the besieged protest hub of Homs in central Syria, where the United Nations estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since mid-March.
The New York-based HRW cited a Syrian security officer in Homs as saying that he received orders from his prison director to assist with irregular detainee transfers. The orders, he said, came after President Bashar al-Assad's government signed an Arab League protocol on ending violence on December 19, giving the observers access to places where detainees might be held.
"He estimated that on December 21 and 22 approximately 400 to 600 detainees were moved out of his detention facility to other places of detention," HRW said in the statement posted on its Web site.
"The transfers happened in installments," the unidentified official was quoted as saying. "Some detainees were moved in civilian jeeps and some in cargo trucks. My role was inside the prison, gathering the detainees and putting them in the cars. My orders from the prison director were to move the important detainees out."
The officer said officials who accompanied the detainees out of the facility told him they were being taken to a military missile factory in Zaidal, just outside of Homs.
Human Rights Watch said his account was corroborated by other witnesses, including a detainee who said that among 150 people being held at one site were people who worked with journalists, defectors, and protesters.
"Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director. "Syria's subterfuge makes it essential for the Arab League to draw clear lines regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed."
The security officer also told HRW that the Syrian government was issuing police identification cards to its military officials, which the rights watchdog said was in violation of the Arab League accord.
"Dressing soldiers in police uniforms does not meet the Arab League call to withdraw the army," Whitson said. "The Arab League needs to cut through Syrian government deception by pushing for full access to anywhere Syria is holding detainees."
Rallies, Clashes Greet Observer Team in Syria
Tens of thousands of Syrians in Homs rallied Tuesday against President Bashar al-Assad, emboldened by Arab peace monitors' first tour of the flashpoint city, after the army withdrew some tanks following battles that killed 34 people in 24 hours.
"There are at least 70,000 protesters. They are marching towards the city center and the security forces are trying to stop them. They are firing tear gas," Rami Abdelrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters.
The observers want to determine if al-Assad is keeping his promise to implement a peace plan to end his uncompromising military crackdown on nine months of popular revolt that has generated an armed uprising, edging Syria towards civil war. The head of the Arab League's monitoring team said the first day in Syria's flashpoint city of Homs was "very good" and all sides were responsive to the monitors.
"I am returning to Damascus for meetings and I will return tomorrow to Homs," Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi said. "The team is staying in Homs. Today was very good and all sides were responsive."
Some protesters, however, shouted "we want international protection" in a video posted on YouTube apparently showing a street encounter with the Arab League observers in which some residents argued and pleaded with them to venture further into the Baba Amr quarter, where clashes have been especially fierce.
Lebanon said it will not send observers to Syria as part of an Arab League mission in order to avoid "negative repercussions" in Lebanon of the Syrian crisis, a government official told the Agence France-Presse.
"Lebanon does not want to isolate itself from other Arab League members or the international community, but at the same time we are trying to avoid allowing the Syria crisis to have negative repercussions on Lebanon," the official said.
Activist reports just before the monitors arrived said up to a dozen tanks were seen leaving Baba Amr, but others were being hidden to fashion a false impression of relative normality in the city while observers were around.
On the border with Turkey, Syrian forces killed several men from an "armed terrorist group" trying to cross into Syria, the state news agency SANA reported Tuesday. The northern border has become the route of choice for infiltration by army defectors fighting to topple al-Assad.
"Special forces were able to kill and wound several gunmen and seized some weapons, ammunition, army uniforms, communication tools and fake identity cards," SANA said.
It did not give a specific casualty count. SANA also reported that said "an armed terrorist group targeted and sabotaged a gas pipeline near Rastan in Homs province."
The pipeline has been attacked several times in recent months and has come back into operation after outages each time.
Judge Promises Speedy Trial for Scribes in Prison
Chief Judge Mehmet Ekinci of the Oda TV case, in which a group of journalists are accused of being members of and helping an outlawed organization, said, during Monday's hearing, that the case will move as quickly as possible.
Arrested journalists Nedim Şener, Ahmet Şık and Soner Yalçın are accused of having ties to the Ergenekon group. During the hearing, defendants Şık and Yalçın Küçük argued regarding the case's proceedings.
When the chief judge announced that the case would not be continued Dec. 28 but on Dec. 29 instead, Küçük was reported to have said that it would be fine for them. Şık, however, said he was opposed to the delay and he would prefer the case to proceed as quickly as possible, telling Küçük he should speak on his own behalf.
As tensions rose, Ekinci warned them not to speak among themselves and said the trial would have a break, but the court would not stop working to finish the judicial process as fast as possible.
Prosecutors in the Oda TV case said those convicted of aiding and abetting the outlawed Ergenekon organization should be imprisoned for seven to 41 years.
As the Oda TV case continues, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said Turkey is better than some Scandinavian countries when it comes to pre-trial detention periods, downplaying criticism on the issue.
"There is a misperception that pre-trial detentions are too long in Turkey. Among those who are currently in jail, 28.4 percent are detainees, while the rest are convicts," Ergin said in a speech to the Fourth Ambassadors' Conference.
Referring to a British study on detention periods, Ergin said that Turkey ranked better than 204 countries and was ahead of Denmark, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Argentina. Out of 36,430 inmates awaiting trial in prison, he said, 27,111 have been behind bars for up to one year, while 5,493 have been imprisoned for periods of between one and two years, and another 2,357 for between two and three years.
"I wouldn't argue that two or three years are short periods of time, but there is a perception that pre-trial detentions are much longer," Ergin said.
He said the situation was actually improving and that the number of those awaiting trial in jail had fallen from 50 percent of inmates in 2000 to 28.4 percent today.
The minister disputed figures from the Turkish Journalists' Union on the number of journalists in jail, arguing that their 72-man list included three names that could not be found in prison records.
Meanwhile, a new indictment was submitted to the court as part of the ongoing Ergenekon case.
The indictment seeks jail time for 11 suspects including former justice minister Seyfi Oktay, who is accused of being a member of an outlawed organization.
AKP Favors Erdogan as President in 2014
A senior official and one of the prime minister's closest aides declared the ruling party's wish Monday to see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as president in 2014, becoming the first government member to formally outline the plan.
"We of course want to see our prime minister as the next president," Transportation and Communication Minister Binali Yıldırım told Habertürk TV in an interview. "As you know, however, the next president will be elected through a popular vote."
Despite an ongoing legal confusion over current President Abdullah Gül's mandate, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said the next presidential elections would be held in 2014, instead of 2012, as the oppositional parties claim. With at least two years apparently remaining until the presidential elections, some ruling party members have already started to speculate on who could lead the party in Erdoğan's absence.
Hüseyin Tanrıverdi, deputy leader of the AKP, said the party would welcome the candidacy of Gül as the AKP's head in the post-2014 period, but the comment drew serious reaction from his party. The Daily News has learned that Tanrıverdi was urged to correct his statement by senior members in the party, which forced him to make consecutive statements saying he was misunderstood.
In earlier statements, Tanrıverdi said: "He [Gül] has political experience. If he wants to get involved in politics once again, politics' doors are open to him. There is no polarization on this issue. We could work with him again as we did in the past."
Tanrıverdi corrected his statements late Monday, underlining that what he expressed was his personal opinions which had never been discussed formally within the party.
"There is plenty of time until 2014. Our mission in Parliament is to write Turkey's new constitution," he said.
The idea of Gül's return to the leadership of the AKP has not been ruled out as a possible scenario, but there is no intention of outlining the swap plan beforehand. Party members do not want to block those who would be interested in running for the AKP leadership in a free and fair poll within the party.
Alongside Gül, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, deputy Prime Ministers Ali Babacan and Bülent Arınç and Yıldırım are also seen as potential future leaders.
"I am very much disturbed to hear that my name is also considered among the potential leaders," Yıldırım said. "It's very early and senseless to talk about it. We have to concentrate on our projects. This speculation will only serve to cause confusion."
The discussion on who could lead the AKP in the post-Erdoğan era came to the forefront after the prime minister underwent serious surgery in late November and amid a debate on the length of Gül's mandate. The AKP has said Gül's mandate will expire in 2014 and added that it will enact a law formalizing the term limits early next month.
Tanrıverdi also broached the subject of holding local, presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time in 2014 in order to allow Gül to run for the Prime Ministry. Yıldırım said holding parliamentary elections one year earlier, instead of in 2015, was possible but added that Parliament would need to decide on the matter.
"The presidential elections are set for 2014. Local elections are held every five years and parliamentary elections will be held in 2015," the transport minister said. "But as you know Parliament can technically take a decision on changing the days of the parliamentary elections. But this is not something to be discussed today."
Interior Minister under Fire over Terror Charges
Opposition parties lashed out at Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin Monday after he suggested there was no distinction between legal Kurdish politicians and terrorists and claimed that artistic activities could constitute terrorism.
The Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, Turkey's main Kurdish political movement, also challenged prosecutors to launch a closure case against it after Şahin argued the BDP and Kurdistan Communities Union, or KCK, were equivalent to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is listed as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community.
"We are turning ourselves in to the prosecutor," BDP Deputy Group LAeader Hasip Kaplan told reporters. "Our party's activities are on record in Parliament. Come and do your best for the BDP's closure, if you are under the command of the interior minister. If not, please give a reaction to the minister."
He said the activities of political parties in Turkey were monitored by the Constitutional Court and not the interior minister, adding that Şahin sought to meddle with the judiciary. Pointing to recent promises by Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay for democratic reforms and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç's remarks on granting Kurds constitutional rights, Kaplan said some ministers were playing the "good cop."
"Besides İdris Naim Şahin, who plays the bad cop, there are deputy prime ministers who play the good cop. Are Beşir Atalay and Bülent Arınç's statements their personal opinions, or are they binding for the government? We are awaiting an explanation from the prime minister," Kaplan said.
Şahin also came under fire for saying some people backed terrorism "by painting, writing poems and daily articles" to "demoralize those fighting against terrorism."
"Terror means bombs, guns, mines and if there is no violence, then there is no terror," Republican People's Party, or CHP, deputy group chairman Muharrem İnce, who has published three poetry volumes, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
"How can there be terror using poems? The interior minister's statements go beyond a slip of the tongue. He is aiming to create a 'terror organization' that would cover all opposition forces," İnce said.
Nevzat Korkmaz of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, a painter with four personal exhibitions, criticized Şahin for "often making gaffes," but added there might be some people who give "intellectual support" to terrorism.
"We all hope that no artist is involved in terrorism. I do not know whom the minister meant but he often makes gaffes," Korkmaz said.
Speaker Cicek Slams Pension Hike Critics as 'Sycophants'
Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek has said the controversial law that hiked lawmakers' pensions was necessary and called criticism of the move "popular sycophancy" following calls on the president to veto the bill.
"The bill came from a necessity, and thus the changes were made," Çiçek told reporters Monday, insisting the bill was passed as a result of a cross-party compromise. Those who criticize the bill were engaged in an act of "popular sycophancy," the speaker said, and no deputy has so far forfeited the hike.
Speaking on the private TV8 channel later in the day, Çiçek said Parliament members had heavy expenditures, including those during election time, but received no financial support from the state, unlike public employees.
"A deputy drives himself to work, pays for the gas. But even an ordinary director has a driver, a car, and government housing," he said. "Deputies' salaries do not stay with them. It may seem like salaries are given to individuals, but it is more paid to the institution of deputyship."
Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay, who issued a veiled call on President Abdullah Gül to veto the bill, stood behind his criticism of the increase and said he was receiving thank you messages for his stance.
Speaking at a ceremony to commemorate Mehmet Akif Ersoy, the author of Turkey's national anthem, Günay said today's politicians must learn from the poet.
"The life of Akif, who refused to take the award for the anthem, serves as a political and moral example," he said.
The amendments, which raised lawmaker pensions from 4,980 Turkish Liras to about 8,000, were rushed through Parliament without any debate Dec. 22. An initial proposal fixing the pensions to 40 percent of the president's salary was followed by a second one that raised the rate to 60 percent.
The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, has disowned the legislation and said it will ask the Constitutional Court to scrap it if Gül signs it into law.
Erdogan Urges Restraint over Armenian Allegations
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called against "bellicose rhetoric" in rows with countries backing allegations of Armenian "genocide," stressing that Turkey should debunk the claims with a comprehensive research of historic facts.
Erdoğan's remarks appeared to be aimed at cooling down tensions with France after the Lower House of its Parliament adopted a bill criminalizing the denial of Armenian "genocide" last week, prompting Ankara to recall its ambassador and suspend political and military cooperation with the EU heavyweight.
"Those who are bothered by Turkey's continuously growing economic, political and diplomatic power and stability are trying to pressure Turkey through various methods," Erdoğan said Monday in a speech at a gathering of the Turkish Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey, or TÜBİTAK.
"Momentary reactions and temporary solutions will not yield results. Instead of using a populist, bellicose rhetoric and displaying momentary reactions over the 1915 incidents, which some countries want to turn into a campaign against Turkey, we must make use of the guidance of history and science," Erdoğan said.
The prime minister urged researchers to intensify studies of Turkey's recent history to help refute allegations that Armenians were the victims of genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
"In the face of illegal, racist, separatist and malevolent campaigns we will only respond with documents, information, archives and the language and method of science," he said. "As we can see from recent events, the gap left by science is filled by populist politicians and racists exploiters. We will take into consideration books, archives and scientific research, not parliamentary votes. The counter-theses that we will share with the world will be based on solid foundations," Erdoğan said.
Referring to Turkey's anti-terror struggle, Erdoğan said it should not rely solely on security measures but also on sociology, psychology, economy and diplomacy.
Greece Seeks Probe on Turkey-Arson Claim
Greece lodged an official complaint with Turkey Tuesday, following a newspaper report that implied the Turkish government was involved in setting forests on fire in Greece in the mid-1990s
Turkey's Birgün newspaper quoted former Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz as making the allegations, but Yılmaz said he had been misquoted and the allegations were untrue.
In Athens, the Foreign Ministry described the allegations as "serious" and demanded an official response.
"As long as such information remains unclear, it will poison public opinion and undermine efforts to build relations of trust between our two peoples," a ministry statement said.
Also Tuesday, Greece's Supreme Court prosecutor Yiannis Tentes launched an emergency inquiry, ordering investigations reopened into mid-1990s wildfires blamed on arson, while the Foreign Ministry said it was seeking an official response from Ankara.
Tensions between traditional rivals Greece and Turkey were running high at the time referred to in the newspaper report, with the two countries coming to the brink of war in 1996 over disputed sovereignty of a tiny island in the Aegean Sea. The two NATO allies have since improved ties.
YILMAZ DENIES 'FIRE' REMARKS THAT CAUSED OUTRAGE IN GREECE
Former Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz on Tuesday said a report published in the Birgün daily, where he was quoted as having said that a former prime minister used discretionary funds allocated for security to set Greek forests on fire, had misquoted him.
Yılmaz, in an interview with Birgün last week, allegedly said the setting of fires in Greek forests was an official secret. He went on to say Tansu Çiller, another former prime minister, had allocated a discretionary fund to be used for these fires.
The Greek fires were allegedly set by Turkish secret service agents while Çiller was prime minister in the 1990s. They were set in retaliation for fires that occurred in touristic areas of Turkey that were allegedly set by Greece around the same time.
Yılmaz spoke to reporters on Tuesday at İstanbul Atatürk Airport as he was waiting for a flight to Los Angeles. Denying the remarks in the Birgün story, Yılmaz said, "The news story is completely the result of a misunderstanding; my remarks were falsified. I am the victim of the daily, which was interested in stirring up sensationalism in Turkey."
Yılmaz went on to repeat his original remarks, saying: "In the interview, I only referred to the forest fires in touristic areas of Turkey in the 1990s. In response to a question about what can be defined as a state secret, I said: 'There were some data and assessments that these Turkish forest fires were deliberately set by the Greek secret service agents, but we didn't reveal this in order to not damage foreign policy relations between Greece and Turkey unless [the allegations] were proven. So in this sense, this issue should be regarded as a 'state secret,' but all of my remarks were changed and falsified in order to stir up sensationalism."
He added that he did not mention a discretionary fund that the daily claimed was allocated for the setting of forest fires in Greece. Concerning the reactions in Greece, Yılmaz also said Greek politicians reacted prematurely.
Yılmaz's most recent statements were announced under the headlines "Yılmaz denied his confession" and "Yılmaz: My remarks were misunderstood" in the Greek media.
His remarks as stated in the news story caused outrage in the Greek media and among politicians.
Greece's Supreme Court prosecutor Yiannis Tentes launched an emergency inquiry, ordering investigations reopened into the mid-1990s wildfires blamed on arson, while the Foreign Ministry said it was seeking an official response from Ankara.
"Information that has been published and attributed to former Prime Minister of Turkey Mr. Yılmaz by the Turkish press is serious and should be investigated," Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Gregory Delavekouras said in a statement. "The Greek side expects to be informed by the authorities of Turkey."
The state TV station ERT and other TV stations have given wide coverage to Greek politicians' reactions.
Foreign affairs spokesman for the New Democratic Party, the conservative political party in Greece, Panos Panayotopulos told Greek media: "Yılmaz's confessions that the Turkish 'deep state' burned Greek forests cast a dark shadow over Greek-Turkish relations. The current Erdoğan government is obligated to share in-depth information about this dark episode and should also make restitution for major damage caused to Greece at that time due to forest fires."
Calling on EU institutions to deal with the issue, Panayotopulos demanded that the Turkish government gives assurances that it has ceased these types of "dirty" tactics.
LAOS, the far-right party in Greece, released a statement on the issue. It recalled the allegations of its leader Giorgos Karatzaferis, who accused Turkish agents of setting the Greek forest fires and who was called an extremist by party members at the time. The statement also said: "Due to remarks from a former Turkish prime minister, we have an admission of guilt."
A former Greek foreign minister and currently leader of the Democratic Alliance (a centrist-liberal political party in Greece), Dora Bakoyannis said Yılmaz's admission that forests on Greece's eastern Aegean islands were deliberately set on fire by Turkish secret agents creates a major political problem, and the Greek government should closely examine the issue.
Noting that at that time, the area of lands burning on the Greek islands was 200 percent larger than in other parts of Greece, Bakoyannis offered a three-stage proposal to the Greek government to use in handling this issue. In the first stage, the government should, through its foreign minister, denounce Turkey in the EU and in other international platforms. In the second stage, the government should claim compensation from Turkey for reforestation and for the economic damage the fires caused at the time. In the final stage, the Greek Ministry of Environment should complete reforestation efforts on the islands in the shortest time possible.
Meanwhile, the issue captured headlines on Monday in the Greek dailies. Ta Nea daily said Yılmaz's remarks could be the result of conflict between Çiller and Yılmaz. The daily also wrote that between 1995 and 1997, the Greek government suspected that these forest fires were started by foreign agents, but they could not find any evidence to prove it.
Another Greek daily, Dimokratia, claimed under the headline "Turkey was burning our forests" that the Greek government will demand compensation for the families of people who lost lives in the fires and financial damage the fires caused.
Stating that Yılmaz made a shocking confession, the Greek daily Elefteros Tipos gave space to the claims of Andrianos Gurbatsis, an official from Greece's fire department, who claimed that he saw Turkish agents throw a signal flare from an inflatable boat off Chios [Greek island].