Turkey: Unjust verdicts in trial of Zaman Journalists

ARTICLE 19 condemns the sentencing of six journalists previously working with Zaman newspaper on charges of membership of a terrorist group, at their final hearing in Istanbul on 6 July 2018. We call for their full acquittal. We are particularly concerned by the ongoing detention of Mustafa Ünal and Mümtazer Türköne and call for their immediate and unconditional release.

“From start to finish, the trial of the Zaman journalists has been a tragic farce”, said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19, who attended the final hearing. “The prosecution has failed to provide substantive evidence that would justify the verdicts against the defendants. The sentences cast a deeply chilling effect on freedom of expression in Turkey, not just those on trial but the journalistic community in general”, she added.

Mustafa Ünal and Mümtazer Türköne were convicted of ‘Membership of an armed terrorist organisation’ (Turkish Criminal Code 314/2) and sentenced to 10 years and 6 months in jail. Ünal was taken into pre-trial detention on 30 July 2016, while Türköne has been jailed since 4 August 2016. They were not released pending appeal.

Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, İbrahim Karayeğen and Ahmet Turan Alkan were also convicted under Article 314/2 and sentenced to 8 years and 9 months in jail. The judge ordered the release of İbrahim Karayeğen and Ahmet Turan Alkan, who had been in pre-trial detention since 24 July 2016 and 30 July 2016 respectively. Şahin Alpay and Ali Bulaç were not taken back into custody (both had previously served spent long periods in pre-trial detention, but were released earlier this year). The defendants will now remain outside custody during the appeal process.

The remaining five defendants were fully acquitted: journalists İhsan Dağı, Lalezar Sarıibrahimoğlu (Kemal), Mehmet Özdemir and Nuriye Ural (Akman), as well as Orhan Kemal Çengiz, a lawyer who had previously represented Zaman.

After the trial, Sarıibrahimoğlu said: “In fact I should never have been charged with these alleged crimes… I welcome the court’s decision to finally acquit me together with four other defendants in Zaman case.” She added: “Yet, my heart is still broken as hundreds of Turkish journalists are in jail or facing interrogation despite the fact that the Turkish Constitutional Court delivered judgments in the Alpay and Altan cases in January this year, finding violations of their right to liberty and freedom of expression. That decision is applicable to other journalists facing prosecution.”

Lalezar Sarıibrahimoğlu (Kemal) and Nuriye Akman had both spent two months in pre-trial detention, before being released in October 2016; Mehmet Özdemir was detained for an astonishing period of one year and nine months. Despite their full acquittals, this is time they will never get back.

“Of course, ARTICLE 19 welcomes the release of Ahmet Turan Alkan and İbrahim Karayeğen and the full acquittals of five defendants. However, this good news must not overshadow the damaging and long term impact of the trial and convictions”, said Katie Morris. “These charges should never have been brought against any of the defendants. These verdicts demonstrate Turkey’s ongoing failure to uphold the right to freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial”, she added.

The verdicts were delivered approximately one hour after defendants gave their closing words. This raises significant questions about their deliberations and how the decision was reached, reinforcing concerns about independence of the judiciary.

For a detailed overview of the charges against the defendants and information on past hearings, please read the Bar Human Rights Committee’s Interim Trial Observation Report, supported by ARTICLE 19.