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Trial of 29 Turkish journalists resumes, more mass trials on their way

U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, 29 July 2016
U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, 29 July 2016

REUTERS/Charles Mostoller/File Photo

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 27 April 2017.

The trial of 29 journalists resumed today in Istanbul after a one-month break. The release of 21 of them, held since last summer, was blocked at the last minute. Indictments are in the process of being issued against dozens of other detained journalists, heralding more mass trials.

In the trial that resumed today, the 29 defendants* are alleged to have constituted the "media wing" of the movement led by the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is accused by the authorities of masterminding the abortive coup attempt in July 2016.

They are facing up to ten years in prison on a charge of belonging to an illegal organization. Twenty-four of them have been in pre-trial detention for the past eight to nine months.


Release of 21 blocked at the last moment

At the end of the first hearing on 31 March, the court ordered the conditional release of 21 of the journalists but this was blocked a few hours later although family members were already waiting outside the prison to receive them.

Instead of being released, they were taken into police custody and then imprisoned again as a result of an appeal by the prosecution and new charges. Thirteen of them are now charged with "trying to overthrow the government and constitutional order." The three judges who ordered their release were suspended on 3 April. Only Ali Akkuş, the former editor of the daily Zaman, was finally released. He remains subject to judicial control.

"Turkey's justice system stops at nothing to keep journalists in detention although they are accused solely in connection with the articles they wrote," said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

"This persecution and the lack of any proportion between the alleged actions and the requested sentences highlight the political nature of these trials. We reiterate our call for the immediate release of all journalists who are being held without evidence of a direct, personal involvement in the coup attempt."


Editorial policies and a few tweets on trial

The first hearing, which was observed by RSF's Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu, was marked by many irregularities. All the journalists denied the accusations brought against them. In essence, the prosecution is accusing them of having worked for media outlets sympathetic to the Gülen movement, including Zaman, Meydan, Bugün, Millet, Haberdar, Habertürk and Samanyolu Haber.

Most of the prosecution evidence consists of articles and posts that criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's administration, covered corruption allegations against the government, or criticized the witchhunt targeting Gülen supporters.

In the prosecution's eyes, all these articles were published as a result of a public relations operation orchestrated by the Gülen movement with the aim of destabilizing the government and paving the way for the coup. But there is no evidence of any actual orchestration.

The discussion in court has focussed mainly on the political views of the defendants. The columnist Murat Aksoy testified that he initially supported the ruling AKP party's reformist policies but began to criticize its new foreign policy and its growing conservatism in 2011.

"I just wrote in order to contribute to democracy," Aksoy told the court. "Are you criticizing what I wrote or the media outlets I wrote for?"

"If I'd known that we were living in a banana republic, I would not have criticized the president on Twitter," fellow defendant Atilla Taş said. "I did my military service (...) and I've kept a bullet in my leg as a souvenir for the past 25 years. And yet today I am accused of terrorism."

Abdullah Kılıç, HaberTürk TV's former news director, gave the court examples of editorials in which he supported President Erdoğan and criticized the Gülen movement. Ali Akkuş recalled that he defended Erdoğan when he was imprisoned for reading a poem in 1999.

Gökçe Fırat, an editorialist for the weekly Türk Solu and leader of the Ulusal party, pointed to the ideological incompatibility between his left-wing nationalist views and the views of the Gülen movement. Former Zaman reporter Habip Güler pointed out that he took part in protests against the July 2016 coup attempt.

Several defendants said they had accounts with the Gülen movement-affiliated bank Asya solely because those accounts had been set up for them to receive their monthly salary deposits.


Another spate of indictments

In a separate case, the prosecution finally submitted a document to the court on 17 April indicting Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak, three well-known journalists who have been in pre-trial detention since last summer.

They are each facing three life sentences on charges of "trying to overthrow the government" because comments they made in a TV studio broadcast on the eve of the coup attempt allegedly contained "insinuations linked to the coup d'état."

The same sentence was requested for 30 former Zaman employees in an indictment issued on 11 April. Twenty-one of them, including Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Ahmet Turan Alkan and Mümtazer Türköne, have been in pre-trial detention since July 2016. Their trial is due to start in the next few months.

Nineteen employees of the daily Cumhuriyet, including 11 who are in pre-trial detention, are facing up to 43 years in prison on charges of belonging to an illegal organization or assisting it. Their trial will open on 24 July.

The already disturbing media situation in Turkey, which is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index, has become critical under the state of emergency declared in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt.

Around 150 media outlets have been liquidated by decree and more than 100 journalists are currently detained. At least 775 press cards and hundreds of journalists' passports have been cancelled without any judicial proceedings. And censorship of the Internet and online social networks has reached unprecedented levels.

*The 29 journalists whose trial resumed today are Abdullah Kılıç, Ahmet Memiş, Ali Akkuş, Atilla Taş, Bayram Kaya , Bülent Ceyhan, Bünyamin Köseli, Cemal Azmi Kalyoncu, Cihan Acar, Cuma Ulus, Davut Aydın, Emre Soncan, Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu, Habib Güler, Halil İbrahim Balta, Hanım Büşra Erdal, Hüseyin Aydın, Muhammed Sait Kuloğlu, Muhterem Tanık, Murat Aksoy, Mustafa Erkan Acar, Mutlu Çölgeçen, Oğuz Usluer, Seyid Kılıç, Ufuk Şanlı, Ünal Tanık, Yakup Çetin, Yetkin Yıldız and Said Sefa (who is on the run).

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