KARAMAN, Turkey (Reuters) - A Turkish teacher accused of sexually abusing children in guest houses run by Islamic foundations was handed a 508-year jail sentence in a case that has stirred recrimination between a government with roots in political Islam and its opponents.
A brief brawl erupted between protesters and security forces outside the courthouse after the ruling. Riot police created a human shield for the convict, who rejected all charges, as he was escorted to a bus to take him to jail.
The teacher, identified in the Turkish media as a 54-year-old male, received the sentence on Wednesday for abusing 10 children in homes allegedly run by the Ensar and KAIMDER charitable foundations in the conservative southern city of Karaman in 2012-15.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, head of the ruling AK Party, had vowed that anyone responsible for abuse would be held to account. But he has also said the allegations are being used for political gain and to tarnish the Islamic foundations, which both deny responsibility.
The main secularist opposition and rights groups have criticised the AK Party, founded by President Tayyip Erdogan, for seeking to defend the foundations, accusing them of running illegal guesthouses for minors, which Ensar and KAIMDER deny.
They have also criticised the trial of a single suspect, arguing the foundations themselves should be held to account.
“Justice has been served if we are talking about this one individual,” Sera Kadigil, one of dozens of lawyers who were present to monitor the hearing, told CNN Turk television.
“But the path for investigation of Ensar and KAIMDER is open,” she said.
Turkey’s opposition is suspicious of what it regards as the AKP’s Islamist ideals and fears such foundations are protected by the government and are building a growing influence over the country’s education system.
In a statement on its website, Ensar’s chairman Cenk Dilberoglu said the suspect served as a voluntary teacher at its foundation for 5 months and that the institution had nothing to do with the alleged abuse and was being deliberately tarnished.
KAIMDER said in a statement on its website that it was the target of a smear campaign.
Family Minister Sema Ramazanoglu drew opposition criticism and a furious response on social media last month when she said the alleged abuse was a lone case and was being used as “an excuse to tarnish an institution”.
The leader of the main secularist CHP opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, last week accused Ramazanoglu and the AKP of seeking to defend the foundations instead of the children.
“I am addressing pious and sincere Muslim citizens: How many times does it have to take place to annoy your conscience?” he said in a speech to parliament.
Additional reporting and writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton