ISTANBUL, Turkey – Attorneys for suspected members of a Turkish Al Qaeda (search) cell accused in last year's homicide bombings in Istanbul acknowledged Tuesday that several of their clients traveled to Afghanistan and Chechnya, but denied they were linked to Al Qaeda or the Istanbul attacks.
On Tuesday, 12 suspects in the case appeared before an Istanbul court as part of preliminary hearings in the trial of 69 suspects accused in the bombings. The 12 are being charged with belonging to an armed group and are not key figures in the case.
All 69 defendants are to appear before the court this week, although the defendants will not testify and the court is primarily dealing with technical issues, such as procedural arguments from attorneys.
Attorneys acknowledged that at least half of the suspects in the courthouse Tuesday had traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Chechnya, but denied they had any connection to the November attacks that killed more than 60 people.
"Their purpose in going (to Pakistan and Afghanistan) was humanitarian," said attorney Ersin Alakesen, representing suspects Mustafa Atlihan (search), Ahmet Demir (search) and Nurettin Gunduz (search). "They didn't have anything to do with the bombings or with Al Qaeda."
Attorneys asked for the suspects to be released pending the trial. Prosecutors agreed that four could be released, but the court refused to do so, saying there was a risk they could escape.
The trial began on Monday, but the court says it does not have the authority to hear the case and can only deal with procedural issues and other urgent matters, such as the attorneys' request to release their clients.
The ruling came after parliament recently abolished state security courts like the one hearing this trial, although the order does not come into force for about another month. New tribunals still have to be set up.
The November bombings targeted two synagogues, the British Consulate and the local headquarters of the London-based HSBC bank.
Two observers from the British Consulate attended Tuesday's trial.
Prosecutors are demanding life sentences for five suspects who they said played direct roles in the bombings and prison sentences ranging from 4 1/2 to 22 1/2 years for the others. Several alleged top ringleaders, however, remain at large.