ISTANBUL, Turkey – A Turkish court on Friday sentenced seven suspected Al Qaeda militants to life in prison for the deadly 2003 bombings in Istanbul.
The defendants, including Syrian Loa'i Mohammad Haj Bakr al-Saqa, were among 73 suspects standing trial for their alleged involvement in the attacks on Nov. 15 and Nov. 20, 2003, which killed 58 people and targeted two synagogues, the British consulate and a London-based bank.
Al-Saqa who was charged with masterminding the bombings called on holy warriors to keep up their fight, declaring during final arguments in court earlier on Friday that "Victory is very near!"
"Hey my hero brothers! Do not worry for me. Victory is very near!" al-Saqa said in a brief statement to court.
"Beware, beware, don't give up for any reason!" he said, and also recited verses from the Koran.
Seyit Ertul, who like many of the defendants had admitted to fighting in Afghanistan and Chechnya but has denied membership in Al Qaeda, read from a 32-page statement.
"No one has brought forth the slightest document or proof that we were members of Al Qaeda," Ertul said, asking for his acquittal.
A third defendant, Harun Ilhan, who has taken responsibility for the bombings, criticized Turkey's secular system and expressed hope for the establishment of an Islamic state.
"We know that one day this regime will crumble and an Islamic regime will be established," he said. Turkey's government has Islamic roots, but its leaders are moderate and the powerful military is viewed as a champion of secular rule.
"Before the day comes that you wish you were Muslims... I invite you to become Muslims," Ilhan said in his address, reflecting his belief that most Turks are not devout followers of Islam.
"I invite you to Allah's religion, Islam," he repeated over and over.
"I am not a theoretician of Al Qaeda. I am a warrior," the state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Ilhan as saying Friday.
Prosecutors have demanded life imprisonment for al-Saqa, 32, who is accused of giving Turkish militants about US$170,000 to carry out the attacks, and four other defendants believed to be ringleaders, including Ilhan.
Police say some suspected ringleaders fled the country after the attacks, and some reportedly died in Iraq while fighting U.S. forces.
Prosecutors said Usama bin Laden had personally ordered al-Saqa to organize the plot, even though some suspects have testified that Al Qaeda was unhappy that the group abandoned an initial plan to attack a base used by the U.S. air force, and instead went after targets that involved killing Muslims.
Al-Saqa was arrested in the southern port city of Antalya in 2005, after explosives accidentally went off in a building he was using as a safe house, forcing him to flee. Turkish authorities say al-Saqa planned to blow up Israeli cruise ships in the Mediterranean.
The Syrian has said he led militants to fight Americans in Iraq, but never planned any attacks in Turkey.
Al-Saqa was sentenced in absentia by Jordan in 2002, along with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq who was killed in a U.S. air raid, for a failed plot to attack Americans and Israelis in Jordan with poison gas during millennium celebrations.
As the trial in Turkey drew to a close, Spain began trying 29 suspects in the 2004 Madrid terrorist attacks on Thursday, with the alleged mastermind in that case saying he had no involvement in the Madrid attacks. There is no known link between the Istanbul and Madrid bombings.