Turkey: Human rights defenders express concerns as Cumhuriyet trial closes

Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, PEN Belgium/Flanders, PEN Nederland, PEN International and Reporters Without Borders continue to follow the criminal proceedings against the reporters and other staff of Cumhuriyet newspaper with great concern. Several international observers will also be present at the sixth hearing, taking place on Friday 9 March 2018.

‘This trial is a chilling illustration of the steep deterioration of freedom of expression and the rule of law in Turkey since the attempted coup of July 2016’, said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Europe Director. ‘Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık and Akın Atalay have been held in pre-trial detention for over a year now on baseless charges and not a shred of credible evidence has been provided to prove their guilt. This is punishment of the very essence of journalism.’

Cumhuriyet journalists and staff are facing criminal charges of supporting terrorist organisations, based primarily on a misreading of articles that appeared in the newspaper and insignificant contacts between journalists and sources.

‘The unconvincing testimony of prosecution witnesses and lack of any credible evidence presented at previous hearings have underscored the absurdity of the charges. Effectively, legitimate journalism is on the docket. We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık and Akın Atalay and the dismissal of the charges’, said Erol Önderoglu, Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders.

International observers have repeatedly stressed the lack of independence and impartiality of the court in the case. Defence lawyers have been excluded from hearings without proper justification. Ahmet Şık was also expelled from the court while attempting to deliver his defence statement.

‘From the start, proceedings have been marred by violations of the right to a fair trial’, said Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International. Isabelle Rossaert, Vice President of PEN Belgium/Flanders added that ‘an all-time low was reached at the previous hearing in December, when the judge interrupted Ahmet Şık’s defence statement and subsequently expelled him from the court room for allegedly disrupting the proceedings. We hope that going forward, the rights of the defence will be respected.’

At the December hearing, which was cut short when defence counsel requested the recusal of the judges following Şık’s expulsion, the judges ruled to continue the pre-trial detention of the four Cumhuriyet staff, although Emre İper was eventually released a few days later as a result of an interim decision.

‘We are dismayed that Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık and Akın Atalay remain imprisoned, and continue to call for their immediate and unconditional release, as well as all other journalists in Turkey who are behind bars for having exercised their right to freedom of expression’, said said Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.

Ahmet Şık’s application to the European Court of Human Rights concerning his prolonged pre-trial detention is among the journalists’ cases given priority status in April 2017 and is still pending.

‘The ideal outcome is of course that the Turkish courts release the defendants and drop all charges at Friday’s hearing;’ said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19, ‘But the fact that the lower courts have not implemented Constitutional Court rulings in other cases of journalists shows that the role of the European Court of Human Rights is more important than ever. Swift rulings on all the cases of detained journalists will be crucial.’