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Turkish court orders arrest of Israeli top brass over Gaza ship raid

May 27, 2014 9:52 A.M. (Updated: May 28, 2014 9:32 A.M.)
ANKARA (AFP) -- A Turkish court on Monday ordered the arrest of four former Israeli military chiefs over a deadly 2010 maritime assault, in a move which could jeopardize reconciliation efforts between the countries.

The court in Istanbul will ask Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for four men involved in a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship, Cihat Gokdemir, a lawyer working on the case, told AFP.

The ruling is part of an ongoing criminal trial in absentia of the four men on charges brought by aid group IHH and the victims' families in 2012, which has been denounced as a "show" by Israel.

It also follows months of negotiations between former allies Turkey and Israel to end a diplomatic row sparked when nine activists were killed after Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged ship.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the court's decision on Monday as a "ridiculous provocation."

"If this is the message that the Turks want to send to Israel, it was perfectly well understood," said the official, declining to elaborate further on what this meant for the reconciliation process.

Turkish officials recently said they were close to a deal that would see Israel pay compensation for the deaths. Local media said Israel had insisted any deal be conditional on the lawsuits against the soldiers being dropped.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking life sentences for former military chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi, former navy chief Eliezer Marom, former military intelligence head Amos Yadlin, and former air force intelligence chief Avishai Levy.

Nine Turkish activists died aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in a flotilla dispatched by Turkish relief agency Humanitarian Relief Foundation to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip on May 31, 2010.

IHH said Monday that a 51-year-old activist who had remained in a coma following the incident died on Saturday, bringing the number of victims to 10.

"Suleyman Ugur Soylemez became a martyr on Saturday," a member of the NGO told AFP.

The assault sparked widespread condemnation and provoked a major diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador, demanded a formal apology and compensation and an end to the blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group.

An Israeli probe found that the raid did not violate international law, in a conclusion which Turkey said lacked credibility.

'We won't give up'

Talks on compensation began a year ago after Israel extended a formal apology to Turkey in a breakthrough brokered by US President Barack Obama.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, said in April he was prepared to normalize ties with Israel.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in February that a deal with Israel was "close," adding: "When we say okay, an international agreement will be concluded and it will set a precedent."

Turkish media have said any agreement would have the status of an international agreement and would give the Israeli military immunity from any liability over the assault.

Under the Turkish constitution, international treaties take precedence over domestic law if there is a disagreement.

It was not immediately clear what political repercussions the court's verdict would have on the negotiations.

"We don't know yet how an agreement will address the issue of criminal charges against the former Israeli commanders," said Ozdem Sanberk, a retired ambassador who represented Turkey on a UN panel investigating the Mavi Marmara raid.

"In principle, the judiciary is independent and we must say that the judicial process is independent from the diplomatic track," he told AFP.

But Serkan Nergis, spokesman for IHH, said the group would continue to fight in the court. The trial is due to continue, with the next hearing expected n December.

"We will not drop the lawsuits. We believe criminals must be put on trial," he told AFP on Monday.

"Even if we do give up, victims' families will not."

There have been several other attempts to reach the Palestinian territory by boat since 2010, all of which have been stopped by Israel without bloodshed.
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