Turkey: Second hearing in show trial of Zaman writers and staff


On 8 December, ARTICLE 19 representatives attended the second hearing in the trial of 32 journalists, columnists and staff working for Zaman newspaper. Accused of involvement in last year’s coup attempt, most of the defendants have been held in pre-trial detention for 500 days, despite no individualised evidence being served against them. Three of the defendants were released on bail at the second hearing, however the majority remain behind bars. ARTICLE 19 calls for their immediate and unconditional release, and for all charges to be dropped.

The hearing against the 32 people took place in Silivri Prison Courthouse. The defendants include writers Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Ahmet Alkan Turan and Mümtazer Türköne who are in pre-trial detention; in addition to writers Lalezar Sarıibrahimoğlu, Nuriye Akman and human rights lawyer, Orhan Kemal Çengiz, who are not detained.

The defendants are accused of “attempting to overthrow the Constitutional order though violence or force”, “attempting to overthrow or interfere with the work of the government” and “attempting to overthrow or interfere with the work of the National Assembly though violence or force.” They are also accused of “membership of a terrorist organisation”, which refers to the Gülen movement, an organisation which the Turkish government blames for the coup attempt.

The indictment against the defendants does not include specific allegations of direct involvement in the coup itself or of incitement to violence. Nor does it include any individualised evidence against the defendants. Instead, the prosecutor argues that defendants sought to create a public perception favourable to the coup. The indictment refers to the titles of articles written by some of the defendants, stating that these reflect the editorial policy of Zaman, which was allegedly determined by Fethullah Gülen, the religious leader of the Gülen movement. This is presented as evidence of their membership of a terrorist organisation. The prosecutor has not attempted to explain how newspaper articles or columns constitute violence, force or terrorism in either the indictment, or during the trial.

This clearly violates international human rights standards, which establish that no restriction may be imposed on freedom of expression on the grounds of national security, unless there is a clear and organic link between an act of expression and the likelihood of violence occurring.

A decision issued by Turkey’s supreme court of appeals on 14 July 2017 ruled that expression alone cannot be equated with violence or force.

During the hearing, the judge heard defence statements from the defendants, who attempted to defend themselves against the vague allegations in the indictment. Writer Lalezar Sarıİbrahimoglu, who joined the hearing via video link from Ankara said “I’m accused of organising the coup through twitter. Tweeting is not a crime, but I don’t even have an account. They didn’t even bother trying to prove it”. Human rights lawyer, Orhan Kemal Çengiz raised the complete lack of evidence against him in the indictment, saying “It’s hard to understand why I am here since there is no evidence presented against me in the indictment. The only reason I’m being charged in this case is because I represented Zaman newspaper at the Constitutional Court. This is an attack on the right to legal defence”. Journalist Ahmet Turan Alkan accused the government of political interference in the judiciary saying “I am angry. You have stolen 500 days from me. This is not to be taken lightly. You know the law. You know the constitution. This is a political trial. It is meaningless to pretend otherwise. You are trying to scare opposition journalists through us, and we are easy targets because no one is behind us and we have become the objects of hate”.

The defence lawyers for Şahin Alpay submitted an expert opinion on the case prepared by ARTICLE 19, which argued that the charges violate international standards on the right to freedom of expression and form part of a campaign of harassment against critical voices in Turkey. Defendants’ lawyers also requested their clients’ immediate release and acquittal, based on the total lack of evidence. The judges eventually decided to release on bail three of the defendants, working in the outlet’s advertising section. All four detained writers remain in pre-trial detention.

The next hearing has been scheduled for April 2018. Although the court will review the case for release on bail on a monthly basis, it is highly unlikely that any of the defendants will be released in the interim. By then, many will have spent almost two years in jail, simply for exercising the right to freedom of expression.

“What we saw in the courtroom does not come close to justice”, said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19, “In neither the indictment nor the courtroom has the prosecutor even attempted to provide any evidence to justify these serious charges. The chief judge in the case has changed four times since the first hearing, raising serious concerns about the right to a fair trial and pressure on the judges in the case. The international community must stop pretending that Turkey is abiding by the rule of law and take action to encourage Turkey to uphold its commitments under international law,” she added.

ARTICLE 19 reminds Turkey of its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe to protect freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial and reiterates its call for the immediate and unconditional release of the defendants.