Turkey: Despite releases in Zaman newspaper show trial, 11 face groundless charges

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the release of Ali Bulaç, Mehmet Özdemir and Şahin Alpay, Turkish journalists working for Zaman newspaper, on 11 May 2018. However, we continue to call on the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against them, as well as the other eight journalists in this case. Of these, five face life sentences.

We further call on them to immediately and unconditionally release the four other Zaman journalists held in pre-trial detention, as well as over 170 journalists and media workers facing similar false charges in separate trials.

ARTICLE 19 further calls on Theresa May to raise the cases of all jailed journalists in Turkey during her meeting with President Erdoğan on Tuesday, and to insist the Turkish authorities reverse their systemic attack on freedom of expression.

On 10-11 May 2018, ARTICLE 19 attended the fourth hearing in the trial of eleven columnists and journalists working for Zaman newspaper at the Serious Crimes Court in Istanbul. Those on trial face various terror-related charges, with five facing aggravated life-sentences.

Charges against the defendants include: “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” (Article 309 of the Turkish Penal Code), “membership of a terrorist organisation” (Article 314(1), Turkish Penal Code), “membership of a terrorist organisation” (Article 314(2), Turkish Penal Code), “aiding a terrorist organisation” (Article 220, Turkish Penal Code), and/or “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” (Article 7(2) of Law 3713 on Countering Terrorism).

Although scheduled to be the final hearing, the court only heard final defence statements from five out of eleven defendants. A further hearing has been scheduled for 7-8 June, when it is expected that the defence statements will be completed and a verdict will be issued.

During the hearing, two journalists, Ali Bulaç and Mehmet Özdemir, were released from pre-trial detention after more than a year and a half in prison. Columnist Şahin Alpay was also released from house arrest. Final defence statements were delivered by Mümtazer Türköne, Orhan Kemal Çengiz, Ali Bulaç, Mehmet Özdemir and Mustafa Ünal.

During his final defence statement, columnist Mümtazer Türköne highlighted the breach of his right to freedom of expression in addition to serious procedural issues in the case. Defending himself against the prosecutor’s allegation that his use of the word “autocracy” in describing the government was evidence of his support for the coup attempt, Türköne said “If you google the ‘autocracy’ you’ll get millions of hits. I didn’t invent the word. Socrates, Aristotle all used it. Yet based on this word I’m accused of attempting a coup”.

Türköne also expressed doubts that the prosecutor could have thoroughly reviewed the evidence in just one day, after new evidence on a CD containing hundreds of articles and columns had been given to the prosecutor one day prior to his issuing of his final opinion.

He also highlighted that the articles were provided in Microsoft Word format, raising the possibility that they could have been altered. Arguing that the evidence cited against him was clearly problematic, he stated “In the digital report there are some incredible things. For instance, apparently I accessed the Zaman website on a date in the future. I apparently accessed various websites from prison”. Türköne faces an aggravated life sentence.

Human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Çengiz, who is not detained, argued in his defence that the sole reason he was included in this case was that he had represented Zaman newspaper in his capacity as a lawyer. Calling attention to the complete absence of any connection between the alleged crime and his actions, he said “You could say a butterfly flapped its wings in China and an earthquake occurred in California in philosophical discussions, but not in the law. In the law you have to have proof of criminal acts to prosecute and convict”. Initially facing an aggravated life sentence, charges against Çengiz were reduced to “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” under Article 7/2 of Law 3713 as part of a supplementary opinion issued by the prosecutor prior to the hearing.

Columnist and writer Ali Bulaç, who had been in pre-trial detention since July 2016, complained of health problems in detention and that he did not have access to some of his articles listed as evidence against him in the final prosecutor’s opinion. Bulaç was released at the end of the hearing, but has a travel ban and reporting requirements. He faces an aggravated life sentence.

Managing editor of Zaman, Mehmet Özdemir argued that the charges against him were based on a misunderstanding of his role at the newspaper. The prosecutor stated he was Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, but in fact he was the managing editor, with no responsibility for determining editorial policy. He was released from pre-trial detention at the end of the hearing, with a travel ban and reporting requirements. Özdemir, previously also faced charges of overthrowing the constitutional order carrying a life sentence, which was reduced in the prosecutor’s supplementary opinion to leading a terrorist organisation, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.

Mustafa Ünal also highlighted the breach of his rights, decrying the Prosecutor’s use of his tweets and columns as evidence against him. Referring to one citation of a tweet that he shared every Friday, which was in fact a quote from the Quran, he stated: This case is a scandal. You have completely destroyed my trust in the Turkish judiciary and the rule of law. Ünal is facing an aggravated life sentence.

While Columnist Şahin Alpay’s final defence was not heard at this hearing, his lawyer requested that he be released from house arrest which was granted at the close of the hearing. Alpay, who has been under house arrest since 16 March 2018, was at the centre of a constitutional crisis in January 2018, when the Constitutional Court ruled for his release from pre-trial detention and the lower court defied the ruling. He was released to house arrest following a second Constitutional Court ruling just before the European Court of Human Rights also issued a verdict confirming the Constitutional Court ruling that his rights to liberty and security, and freedom of expression had been violated by his extended pre-trial detention. Alpay faces an aggravated life sentence but the only evidence against him consists of his columns, which allegedly demonstrate that he wrote in accordance with the editorial policy of Zaman newspaper, accused by the prosecutor of being the media arm of a terrorist organisation. Zaman newspaper had previously taken an editorial line in favour of Gülen, the exiled preacher who the government accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt. ARTICLE 19 has analysed the charges and evidence against Alpay and submitted an expert opinion to the court in December arguing that his columns consisted of criticism of government policy and his right to freedom of expression had been grossly violated.

ARTICLE 19 repeats its call to the Turkish authorities to drop all charges in this case, and immediately and unconditionally release those held in pre-trial detention.

ARTICLE 19 is disturbed by the political nature of this trial and other trials against journalists, in a context of a mass crackdown on the media and free expression in Turkey. Turkish authorities must take immediate action to ensure the independence of the judiciary and restore the rule of law.

Furthermore, UK Prime Minister Theresa May should take the opportunity of President Erdogan’s official visit to the UK this week to raise these cases. Any trade or political negotiations should be tied to genuine steps to drastically improve Turkey’s compliance with international standards on human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.