Turkey: Show trials of journalists are a travesty of justice

This week, ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are monitoring two trials of journalists in Turkey. On Monday 18 September they attended the first hearing in the trial of journalists, columnists and staff working for Zaman newspaper, including Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Ahmet Alkan Turan and Mümtazer Türköne. Today, on Tuesday 19 September, they are attending the second hearing in the case of a number of journalists and columnists including Ahmet and Mehmet Altan. ARTICLE 19 and RSF call for the journalists to be released from pre-trial detention and for the charges to be dropped.

In both trials, the defendants are accused of involvement in last year’s failed coup. They face charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through violence or force”, “attempting to overthrow or interfere with the work of the national assembly through violence or force” and “attempting to overthrow or interfere with the work of the government”. In the Zaman case, the defendants are also charged with membership of a terrorist organisation, which refers to the Gülen movement, the organisation the Turkish government blames for the coup attempt. In the Altans’ case, the defendants are charged with aiding a terrorist organisation without being a member, which carries the same sentence as membership. In both cases, the defendants face three aggravated life sentences. Most of them have already been in pre-trial detention for between 12 and 14 months.

In neither case does the indictment include specific allegations of direct involvement in the coup itself or of incitement to violence.

In the Zaman indictment, the prosecutor claims that the defendants sought to create a public perception favourable to the coup. The indictment does not establish clear and individualised evidence against the defendants. On the contrary, it states that the articles do not contain individual crime elements, but reflect the editorial policy of Zamannewspaper, which was allegedly determined by Fethullah Gülen, the religious leader of the Gülen  movement. It is argued that this demonstrates they were part of a terrorist network. No attempt has been made in the indictment to explain how newspaper articles or columns constitute violence or force.

In the Altans’ case, the indictment outlines a number of columns or articles written by the defendants which express views critical of the government, in addition to a television interview in which the prosecutor claims they gave subliminal messages in support of the coup. Apart from this, some circumstantial evidence about contact they had with alleged members of the Gülen movement is included.

ARTICLE 19 and RSF, along with a number of other international human rights or press freedom organisations, monitored the first hearing of the Altans’ trial in June 2017. ARTICLE 19 submitted an expert opinion to the court, which outlined how the charges against the defendants do not comply with international standards on the right to freedom of expression. The opinion further concluded that these cases appear to be politically motivated.

In addition to the groundless charges, ARTICLE 19 and RSF are concerned about undue pressure on human rights lawyers. Veysel Ok, the lead defence lawyer for Ahmet Altan and Şahin Alpay, is also on trial this week in a separate case where he is charged with “insulting Turkishness” and “insulting the judiciary” based on an interview he gave in 2015 where he criticised the Turkish justice system, stating that the judges lacked independence. Another human rights lawyer, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, is a defendant in the Zaman newspaper case. His name only appears once in the indictment and no evidence is cited against him. He was the lawyer representing theZaman case at the Constitutional Court and also wrote columns for Today’s Zaman.

Both cases represent show trials aimed at silencing dissent and alternative viewpoints, particularly criticism of the government. In both cases, ARTICLE 19 and RSF call for the journalists to be released and for the charges to be dropped in the absence of individualised evidence of involvement in an internationally recognised crime.