A Turkish court on Friday sentenced seven suspected al-Qaida militants to life in prison for deadly 2003 suicide bombings in Istanbul that killed 58 people. The defendants, including Syrian Loa'i Mohammad Haj Bakr al-Saqa, were among 74 suspects standing trial in the attacks, which targeted two synagogues, the British consulate and a London-based bank.
The court acquitted 26 of the defendants, while sentencing the rest to prison terms ranging from three years and nine months to 18 years.
Al-Saqa, who was charged with masterminding the bombings, called on holy warriors to keep up their fight, declaring during final arguments Friday that "victory is very near!"
"Hey, my hero brothers! Do not worry for me. Victory is very near!" he said in a brief statement to court.
"Beware, beware, don't give up for any reason!" he said, and also recited verses from the Quran.
Along with al-Saqa, the court handed life sentences to Harun Ilhan, who has taken responsibility for the bombings, Fevzi Yitiz, who helped build the truck bombs, and Yusuf Polat, who gave the final go-ahead for the synagogue attacks, as well as other leading defendants Baki Yigit, Osman Eken and Adnan Ersoz.
Ersoz had admitted receiving weapons training in Afghanistan and fighting with Islamic militants in Chechnya.
In his closing arguments, Ilhan criticized Turkey's secular system and expressed hope for the establishment of an Islamic state.
Call for Islamic state
"We know that one day this regime will crumble and an Islamic regime will be established," he said. Turkey's government has Islamic roots, but its leaders are moderate and the powerful military is viewed as a champion of secular rule.
"Before the day comes that you wish you were Muslims... I invite you to become Muslims," Ilhan said in his address, reflecting his belief that most Turks are not devout followers of Islam.
"I invite you to Allah's religion, Islam," he repeated over and over.
"I am not a theoretician of al-Qaida. I am a warrior," the state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Ilhan as saying Friday.
The court sentenced Seyit Ertul, who like many of the defendants had admitted to fighting in Afghanistan and Chechnya but has denied membership in al-Qaida, to 18 years in prison for being the ringleader of a local al-Qaida cell in the central Anatolian city of Konya.
"No one has brought forth the slightest document or proof that we were members of al-Qaida," Ertul said in his closing statement.
Prosecutors had demanded life imprisonment for al-Saqa, 32, who was accused of giving Turkish militants about $170,000 to carry out the attacks, and four other defendants believed to be ringleaders, including Ilhan.
Police say some suspected ringleaders fled the country after the attacks, and some reportedly died in Iraq while fighting U.S. forces.
Direct role by bin Laden?
Prosecutors said Osama bin Laden had personally ordered al-Saqa to organize the plot, even though some suspects have testified that al-Qaida was unhappy that the group abandoned an initial plan to attack a base used by the U.S. Air Force, and instead went after targets that involved killing Muslims.
Al-Saqa was arrested in the southern port city of Antalya in 2005, after explosives accidentally went off in a building he was using as a safe house, forcing him to flee. Turkish authorities say al-Saqa planned to blow up Israeli cruise ships in the Mediterranean.
The Syrian has said he led militants to fight Americans in Iraq, but never planned any attacks in Turkey.
Al-Saqa was sentenced in absentia by Jordan in 2002, along with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader in Iraq who was killed in a U.S. air raid, for a failed plot to attack Americans and Israelis in Jordan with poison gas during millennium celebrations.