updated 5/31/2004 6:19:07 AM ET 2004-05-31T10:19:07

The trial of 69 suspected members of a Turkish al-Qaida cell accused in a string of November suicide bombings in Istanbul opened Monday, and defense lawyers immediately asked that the case be delayed.

As part of its efforts to join the European Union, Turkey’s parliament voted earlier this month to abolish state security courts like the one hearing the trial. Defense lawyer Osman Karahan said the defendants should be brought before new tribunals that will be created after the reforms take effect this summer.

“Your court has no power and has no mission. It cannot decide on anything,” Karahan told the court.

The court was expected to decide whether to postpone the trial later in the day. Twelve of the suspects were brought to court Monday to testify, but it wasn’t clear if they would do so because of the defense’s motion.

61 people killed in series of bombings
The truck bombings targeted two synagogues, the British Consulate and the local headquarters of the London-based HSBC bank. Prosecutors say 61 people, including British Consul-General Roger Short, were killed and more than 600 others injured in the attacks.

In their 128-page indictment, prosecutors are demanding life sentences for five suspects who they said played direct roles in the bombings. Paramilitary police escorted the five, as well as several others to the court Monday, where they were expected to testify.

The other 64 suspects could face prison sentences ranging from 4½ to 22½ years. Several alleged top ringleaders, however, remain at large.

In their indictment, Turkish prosecutors allege that Osama bin Laden suggested targets for an attack in Turkey and his al-Qaida network later provided $150,000 to the Turkish Islamic militants who carried out the attacks.

First for Turkey
The case is the first in which alleged members of al-Qaida are being tried by a court in this predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country.

According to the indictment, Habib Akdas, the suspected leader of the cell, and two alleged cell members, Baki Yigit and Adnan Ersoz, met on several occasions with Abu Hafs al-Masri, a former top lieutenant of bin Laden. Al-Masri is believed to have arranged for Akdas and Yigit to meet with bin Laden in 2001 in Afghanistan. Al-Masri, alias Mohammed Atef, was killed by a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan in November 2001.

Yigit, who is in custody, said the Turkish cell initially proposed kidnapping members of a pro-Western Turkish business group, but the idea was rejected by bin Laden and al-Masri, the indictment said.

Instead, al-Masri and bin Laden suggested attacks against Incirlik Air Base, a southern Turkish air base used by the U.S. military, as well as against Israeli ships in the southern port of Mersin, the indictment said.

Intelligence officials have said the militants ended up changing their targets because of high security at the sites.

The suspected militants asked for $150,000 for the attacks from al-Masri and the money was paid to the cell last year by affiliates in Europe and Iran, prosecutors said.

Suspected militants with ties to groups linked to al-Qaida have been tried in several other countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the United States.

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