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Turkey: "Cumhuriyet" newspaper hearing marred by procedural violations

Protest outside the court where the
Protest outside the court where the "Cumhuriyet" newspaper trial took place in Istanbul, Turkey, 31 October 2017

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

This statement was originally published on on 1 November 2017.

On 31 October 2017, one year to the day after the arrests and indictments of 17 members of the Cumhuriyet newspaper's board and journalistic staff, the fourth hearing in the case took place.

Prior to being returned to detention, Murat Sabuncu, Editor-in-Chief of the paper said in his defence statement: 'Do you know why we're standing here on trial? Because we, 17 people, never accept orders from anyone.' Referring to the last hearing when the judge had compared the defendants to Icarus, he said: 'Even if we are destined to burn, we're determined to do what we know best - journalism.'

'We are highly concerned about the rapid deterioration of the rule of law and the right to freedom of expression in Turkey. The absurd case against the Cumhuriyet journalists is unfortunately only one of many', said Burhan Sonmez, Board Member of PEN International.

Trial observers included PEN International, Turkish PEN, Norwegian PEN and PEN Flanders/Belgium along with observers from International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders and national level media organisations. Diplomatic observers attended from the US, UK, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

The one-day hearing centred on witness testimony from a digital forensics expert relating to the mobile security application ByLock, which the prosecution claims is an indication of involvement with FETO, the network of US-based cleric Fettulah Gülen who the Turkish authorities claim is responsible for the attempted coup of July 2016. The defence witness testified that Emre Iper, one of the defendants, never had ByLock on his mobile phone.

The hearing was marred by procedural violations. Documents requested by the court from the prosecutor's office were not delivered. A prosecution witness also did not appear in court to testify for the third hearing in a row. Although the defence counsel have asked for this witness, a former Cumhuriyet reporter who was dismissed from the paper, to be removed from the prosecution's witness list, the judge decided the witness will instead be called once more at the next hearing.

'The course of the proceedings demonstrates the lack of independence and impartiality of the courts in Turkey', said Rachida Lamrabet of PEN Flanders/Belgium.

Four members of the Cumhuriyet staff remain in pre-trial detention: Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Sik, Akin Atalay and Emre Iper.

'We call for the immediate and unconditional release of the four Cumhuriyet journalists who remain in jail, as well as all other journalists who are imprisoned for having peacefully exercised their right to freedom of expression', said Eugene Schoulgin of Norwegian PEN.

PEN International has observed all hearings in this trial and has submitted a joint third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case concerning the extended period of pre-trial detention, which outlines the implications of this case for the freedom of expression of Turkish society as a whole. You can read the intervention here.

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