Tolon leaves prosecutor's questions on Ozal's death unanswered

Retired Gen. Hursit Tolon, who is currently under arrest as part of the Ergenekon case, has denied having knowledge of the 1993 death of late President Turgut Ozal, declining to answer several questions by a civilian prosecutor.

The general was taken from an Istanbul jail where he is incarcerated and brought to an Ankara court on Sunday to testify in the case looking into the death of Ozal. News sources on Monday reported that Tolon's testimony lasted for three hours and the prosecutor involved in the probe into Ozal's death asked the general 35 questions. Sources said the prosecutor questioned Tolon as a “suspect” in the case. Tolon reportedly told the prosecutor that he had no hand in or knowledge of the death of the late president. He did not respond to a number of other questions posed by the prosecutor.

Tolon was a former 1st Army Corps commander. He is a key suspect in the trial of Ergenekon, an alleged clandestine criminal network with suspected links within the state accused of plotting to topple the government. In addition, he is a prime suspect in the Zirve Publishing House massacre, in which three Christian missionaries were brutally killed by five ultranationalist youths in 2007. A Malatya court recently issued an arrest warrant for the retired general for his alleged involvement in the massacre.

In an earlier testimony, a secret witness in the case into the murder of the three missionaries claimed that he had knowledge about the death of Ozal and that the former president had been killed by the National Strategies and Operations Department of Turkey (TUSHAD), which has long been known as a clandestine organization within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The secret witness, who is a former sergeant, also claimed that Tolon was among the members of TUSHAD.

Ozal died from alleged heart failure on April 17, 1993, at a hospital in Ankara at the age of 65 while serving in office. However, claims have often been raised since then that Ozal's death did not stem from “natural causes” and that he was poisoned. Tolon reportedly told the prosecutor that he did not know about TUSHAD and the claim of the witness that he was a member of TUSHAD was groundless.

An investigation was launched into the death of the late president last year after a number of witnesses spoke of unusual circumstances on the day of Ozal's death. His remains were exhumed as part of an investigation for toxicology testing to find out if the poisoning claims were indeed true. The Council of Forensic Medicine (ATK) examined the late president's internal organs and tissues and an autopsy report written by the council confirmed the presence of poisonous substances in his organs and tissues. However, members of the council were unable to conclusively determine whether the substances were the cause of Ozal's death, which led to public fury that the report would not satisfy the conscience of the people.

Following Tolon's testimony, the general's lawyer, Ilkay Sezer, spoke to reporters and said his client was forced to testify on “humiliating and groundless” accusations leveled against him. He also said the prosecutor did not request Tolon's arrest as part of the Ozal's death probe. Tolon was arrested in 2008 as part of the investigation into Ergenekon on charges of “being an administrator of a terrorist organization” but was later released pending trial in 2009 due to health reasons. However, he was arrested in January of last year for a second time. A prosecutor is seeking a life sentence for the retired general.

On Monday, Ozal's son, Ahmet Ozal, paid a visit to the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office. Speaking to reporters when leaving the office, Ahmet Ozal said he had been invited by the prosecutors. "The prosecutors asked me if I had additional information [about the death of the late president]. I previously spoke with prosecutors about everything I knew. I will look into the new questions prosecutors have asked me and share with them what I find," he stated.

Ahmet Ozal also said the prosecutor's office has yet to decide whether to drop the case in a few weeks due to the statute of limitations or go ahead with the investigation. The case into the former president's death is likely to be dropped on April 17 -- on the 20th anniversary of his death -- if the prosecutor investigating the death does not file an indictment by then.

In Turkey, the statute of limitations is 30 years for crimes necessitating an aggravated life sentence, 25 years for crimes calling for a life sentence, 20 years for crimes requiring a 20-year prison sentence, 15 years for crimes warranting a sentence of up to 15 years and five years for crimes entailing eight years.