Istanbul (CNN) -- Turkey's judicial system faced an uproar this week after one of the country's highest courts upheld a decision to reduce sentences against 26 men convicted of having sex with a 13-year old girl. Public outrage stemmed from a court ruling that the 13-year old girl had willingly engaged in "consensual" sexual relations with the 26 men.
Among the growing chorus of critics was Turkey's President Abdullah Gul.
"I take particular care not to make any direct statements on issues that are in the judicial process," Gul wrote in a series of statements on his Twitter account on Friday. "[But] the decision about reducing the punishment related with what happened to a young child of ours made me deeply uncomfortable... there is still the possibility for an appeal. I am hoping for an outcome that will comfort the public conscience."
The case in question dates back to 2002, when 26 men from the southeastern Turkish town of Mardin were accused of repeatedly having sex with a 13-year old girl identified only by the initials "N.C." According to Turkish media reports, the men, who included village 'muhtars' [mayors] and a gendarme officer, were accused of paying money to two adult female intermediaries during a 7-month period for repeated access to the girl.
Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals has now found itself under fire from women's rights groups, lawyers' associations, and senior government officials.
In response, the head of the Supreme Court's 14th Criminal Office adopted a somewhat contradictory position.
"The evaluations of the court were correct. We made a decision. This decision is not definite, it is also not possible for this decision to be changed by making noise," said Fevzi Elmas of the Supreme Court of Appeals, in an interview with the semi-official Anatolian Agency on Friday.
The courts sentenced the 26 accused rapists' according to an earlier version of the country's penal code, which underwent significant revisions in 2005.
The older penal code entailed lesser punishments for defendants found guilty of sexually assaulting children.
"In the old penal code there was a very clear article which said it didn't matter if you were under 15 [years of age] or over 15... if any rape or sexual assault happened with the consent of the girl or the woman, then the sentence would be reduced," said Pinar Ilkkaracan of the group Women for Women's Human Rights, who lobbied for the 2005 revision of the Turkish criminal code.
"In the new Turkish penal code there is no question of consent, that is incredibly important for us," Ilkkaracan added. "In terms of girls and boys under 15 it says very clearly any violation of the body for sexual purposes is defined as sexual abuse in the new code. Which means that sexual assault or the violation of the body should have a higher sentence."
According to Turkish media reports, some of the 26 defendants were acquitted, while others received jail sentences of one to four years.
"This decision is an outright scandal," said Ilkkaracan, the women's rights advocate.
In his statement to Anatolian Agency, Elmas, the official from the Supreme Court of Appeals, argued that the court had no choice but to sentence the defendants according to the pre-2005 version of the penal code.
"We don't have any other option," Elmas said. "This is an undebatable rule of law."
But that decision was challenged by the Union of Turkish Bar Associations on Friday, which called the ruling "legally inappropriate."
Meanwhile, in a written statement released on her ministry's web-site, Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Sahin argued the ruling violated not only the current criminal code, but also the older version which had been in force in 2002 at the time when the 26 men were accused of having sex with the 13 year old.
"I find the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals 14th Criminal Office to approve the verdict of the local court that a 13-year old child 'got together with the defendants of her own free will' unacceptable and worrying," Sahin wrote.
"I would like to remind the judiciary that its primary task is to protect the victim and the rights of the one who was sexually abused," she added.