An Ankara court commuted Thursday the detention of three suspects in the murder of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov and placed them on house arrest.
Karlov was assassinated in 2016 by an off-duty policeman linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). The suspect, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, was killed in a shootout with police later. Some 28 defendants are on trial for helping him and instructing him to carry out the murder.
Among those released put on house arrest were Mustafa Timur Özkan and Kağan Bülbül, organizers of the art exhibition Karlov was attending at the time of his murder, and Sercan Başar, the former roommate of Altıntaş. In yesterday's hearing, an expert witness report on the cellphone of Şahin Söğüt, the alleged FETÖ "handler" of Altıntaş, was also presented. The report disclosed Söğüt had Falcon, an encrypted messaging app FETÖ members commonly used, as well as a fake U.S. phone number, a VPN program and an app used to automatically format the phone's contents. When he was arrested, Söğüt was trying to destroy his cellphone.
The hearing has been adjourned until Nov. 29 since the judges ordered waiting for arrest warrants for defendants at large, including FETÖ leader Fetullah Gülen.
The 28 suspects face numerous charges, including attempting to eliminate the constitutional order, aggravated murder for the purpose of terrorism and membership in an armed terrorist organization.
Gülen and seven other individuals are the prime suspects in the case. Along with Gülen, Şerif Ali Tekalan and Emre Uslu are prominent figures from FETÖ included in the indictment. All are currently living as fugitives in the U.S. The indictment by the Chief Public Prosecutor's Office in Ankara details Altıntaş' connections to FETÖ, including Şahin Söğüt. It was Söğüt who instructed Altıntaş to carry out the murder, according to investigators.
The evidence shows Şahin Söğüt met Altıntaş 10 days before the assassination and the same day, Altıntaş did online research about Russia. Other evidence shows connections between Özkan and Tekalan, a fugitive senior FETÖ member who is currently serving as a president of a U.S. university run by the terrorist group. Tekalan and Özkan had financial ties according to prosecutors.
Emre Uslu, a journalist who fled to the U.S. after an arrest warrant was issued by Turkey in a separate case, is accused of diverting suspicion from FETÖ's role in the murder on social media. The prosecutors said in the indictment that Altıntaş originally first planned to kill Karlov at a dinner for ambassadors hosted by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) on June 27, 2016, but scrapped the plan when Karlov did not attend and went on a trip abroad instead. They added that FETÖ and "foreign powers that used the group" aimed to derail bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia through the assassination and "drive the countries to a possible conflict" as well as "create chaos ahead of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt by FETÖ."
The assassination came at a time of thaw between strained Turkish and Russian relations. Since the murder, Ankara and Moscow have gradually made progress in rebuilding their ties, which were disrupted by the 2015 downing of a Russian fighter jet over the Syrian border by the Turkish military.