By Mert Ozkan
KARAMAN, Turkey (Reuters) - The trial of a Turkish teacher accused of sexually abusing children in guesthouses run by Islamic foundations began on Wednesday in a case that has sparked outrage among secularist opponents who accuse the government of leaping to the organizations' defense.
The teacher, identified in the Turkish media as a 54-year-old male, is accused of sexually abusing 10 children in homes allegedly run by the Ensar and KAIMDER charitable foundations in the conservative southern Anatolian town of Karaman in 2012-15.
He denied the charges, according to Tugba Utebay, a lawyer from the Istanbul bar association who was in the courtroom on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has 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 criticized Davutoglu's Islamist-rooted AK Party for seeking to defend the foundations, accusing them of running illegal guesthouses for minors, which Ensar and KAIMDER deny.
Turkey's opposition is suspicious of the AKP's Islamist ideals and fear that such foundations are protected by the government and building a growing influence over the country's education system.
The opposition and rights groups have also criticized the trial of a single suspect, arguing the foundations themselves should be held to account.
"An efficient investigation is one that would uncover the chain of those responsible for this crime," said Emrah Kirimsoy, a member of children's rights association Gundem Cocuk.
PROTEST OUTSIDE COURTHOUSE
The teacher could face sentences amounting to several hundred years in jail if found guilty of charges including molesting children and encouraging them to watch obscene images, Oktay Yilmaz, head of Karaman's bar association and a lawyer for five of the children, told Reuters.
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.
Dozens of protesters and members of rights groups demonstrated outside the courthouse, holding banners that read 'we will not allow rapists to be acquitted'. Police set up a cordon around the building and searched those entering.
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 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)