Trial opens in murder of Russian ambassador in Turkey

Andrei Karlov was shot dead on camera by an off-duty Turkish policeman in 2016, threatening to set back relations between Turkey and Russia.

ANKARA - A trial into the 2016 murder of a Russian ambassador opened in Ankara on Tuesday with the first two of 28 defendants to be heard denying any links to the assassin.

Andrei Karlov, 62, was shot dead by an off-duty Turkish policeman at a photo exhibition in Ankara on December 19, 2016, in a shock attack that was captured on camera by photographers attending the event.

The 22-year-old gunman, Mevlut Mert Altintas, shouted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and "Don't forget Aleppo", vowing that those responsible for events in Syria would be held accountable.

Turkish special forces killed Altintas shortly afterwards.

Karlov's widow Marina Karlova said Monday that the murder was aimed at damaging relations between Russia and Turkey. She did not attend Tuesday's hearing.

On Tuesday the two defendants denied any links to Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic preacher seen as an arch-foe of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and whom Ankara blames for a July 2016 coup attempt.

The pair, who had attended the same police academy as Altintas, denied being friends with him.

They are accused of belonging to a terror group.

Bilal Dereli, 26, told the court he had never been in the same class as Altintas and knew him only by sight, while Oguzhan Ozturk, 28, also denied being friends with the killer.

"I got into police school on the third attempt. If I had a link (to Gulen), I would have immediately been successful," Dereli added.

Dogukan Soylemez, a 26-year-old classmate of Altintas and a former security officer for the health minister, insisted he had no links with Gulen either while at school or in his working life.

Gulen denies murder link

The Ankara prosecutor has charged 16 defendants with "premeditated murder with the intention of causing terror", according to the indictment. Another 12 have been charged with "belonging to a terror organisation".

Thirteen are currently in pre-trial detention, while five suspects are on conditional release and appeared in court Tuesday. Six others are being tried in absentia.

Four suspects appeared in court via video conference while nine were under gendarmerie protection in the courtroom.

Gulen, who has denied links to both the failed coup and the murder, was among those not in attendance.

Turkey refers to Gulen's organisation as the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), but followers say it is peaceful, promoting secular education.

'Hot war' risk

Penalties sought by the prosecution include aggravated life sentences, which have replaced the death penalty in Turkey and carry harsher conditions than normal life imprisonment convictions.

The indictment says the Gulen movement plotted the murder of Karlov, who had been appointed as ambassador in 2013, to "break off bilateral relations" between Turkey and Russia and bring them to the brink of "hot war".

"This murder took place on the eve of a meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers on the topic of discussing a peace settlement in Syria," Karlov's wife Marina said.

"I think that the aim of this murder was to wreck those talks and worsen relations between Russia and Turkey," she told Rossiya-24 television.

Turkey and Russia had a dramatic falling out in November 2015 after a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian warplane along the Syrian border.

But by the summer of 2016 relations had improved, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan keen to show they are working together to find a solution to the Syrian conflict despite being on opposite sides of the war.

Tens of thousands of people have been arrested over alleged links to Gulen since 2016 in a crackdown criticised by human rights groups and Ankara's Western allies.