ANKARA, Turkey – A central figure in the homicide bombing of an Istanbul (search) synagogue was captured while trying to slip into Iran, police said Saturday. He was charged with trying to overthrow Turkey's "constitutional order" — an offense equivalent to treason.
The suspect, whose name was not released, is believed to have given the order to carry out the Nov. 15 truck bombing of the Beth Israel synagogue — one of four homicide attacks that killed 61 people in Turkey in November, said Istanbul Deputy Police Chief Halil Yilmaz.
Authorities arrested the man Tuesday at the Gurbulak crossing in eastern Agri province (search), which borders Iran.
A court charged him Saturday with attempting to overthrow Turkey's constitutional order by force, an offense that amounts to treason and is punishable by life in prison. Authorities have charged another 20 people in connection to the bombings, but for lesser roles.
"It is understood that the arrested person carried out intelligence gathering on Beth Israel synagogue before the attack, went to the location with other accomplices on the day of the attack and ordered the start of the attack," Yilmaz said.
He was the first major figure charged in connection with the bombings at two synagogues, the British Consulate and London-based HSBC Bank (search) in Istanbul. Authorities didn't specify his alleged role in the plot or how many others they believe are involved.
The synagogue bombings killed 29 people and the consulate and HSBC attacks killed 32. The death toll includes all four homicide bombers, who authorities said were Turks.
Police arrested the suspect in the Beth Israel attack after receiving a tip that he planned to flee the country with false documents, Yilmaz said.
On Saturday, television footage showed police escorting the man, in handcuffs and blue police flak jacket, to the synagogue site where he described the attack to an inspector, occasionally turning to point at a street or the wreckage of the synagogue as an officer filmed him.
Turkish police routinely take suspects to the scene of a crime as part of a confession, though authorities did not say whether that had occurred in this case.
Previously, a person charged with attempting to overthrow the "constitutional order by force" could have faced the death penalty but the country abolished capital punishment as part of a series of reforms intended to increase the likelihood that the European Union will accept Turkey as a member.
Western and Turkish officials say the suicide attacks bore the hallmarks of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda (search). Newspapers have said some of the bombers could have been trained at the group's camps in Afghanistan or Iran.
It was not known why the suspect tried to flee to Iran, which borders Turkey.
In the past, authorities have accused Tehran of backing radical Islamic groups in Turkey and alleged that members of an Islamic radical group suspected in a series of killings trained in Iran and received support from its government.
American counterterrorism officials said last month that a few senior Al Qaeda operatives who fled to Iran after the Afghan war may have developed a working relationship with a secretive military unit linked to Iran's religious hard-liners.
Iran has said it has some Al Qaeda operatives in custody but has refused to identify them or provide other details.
A London-based Arabic newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, reported Friday that a man backed by Iran and linked in the past to the radical Turkish group Hezbollah was behind the Istanbul bombings. The paper identified the man as Imad Mughniyah but did not reveal its source for the information, and the report could not be confirmed.
Turkish authorities have identified the synagogue homicide bombers as Mesut Cabuk, 29, and Gokhan Elaltuntas, 22, both from the town of Bingol in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey. The consulate and bank bombers have yet to be officially identified.
Private CNN-Turk television reported that police detained Cabuk's wife in southeast Turkey and brought her to Istanbul on Saturday for questioning.