A prosecutor has appealed the trial court’s verdict in the “Özgür Gündem solidarity trial,” where Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Professor Şebnem Korur-Fincancı, the president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), and journalist and writer Ahmet Nesin were accused on account of their participation in a 2016 campaign to show solidarity with the now-defunct pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem. The trial court had acquitted all three of all charges in the final hearing of their trial on 17 July 2019.
17 July 2019:
Rights defenders acquitted in “Özgür Gündem solidarity trial”
Fincancı, Önderoğlu and Nesin were accused of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization,” “incitement to commit crime” and “praising crime and criminals”
CANSU PİŞKİN, İSTANBUL
The 11th hearing in the trial where Professor Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), Erol Önderoğlu, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Turkey representative, and journalist-writer Ahmet Nesin were accused of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization,” “incitement to commit crime” and “praising crime and criminals” for joining in the “substitute editor-in-chief” campaign for the shuttered Özgür Gündem newspaper was held on 17 July 2019.
Fincancı and the lawyers representing all three defendants were in attendance at the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul. In addition to P24, the hearing was monitored by representatives from the EU Delegation to Turkey, the British Embassy, the International Press Institute (IPI), Article 19, Amnesty International, International Association of Writers (PEN) Norway, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Turkish Journalists Union (TGS), Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), and HDP Deputy Ahmet Şık.
At the beginning of the hearing, the prosecutor reiterated his final opinion and requested Fincancı, Önderoğlu and Nesin to be convicted of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization,” “incitement to commit crime” and “praising crime and criminals.”
In response to the final opinion, Fincancı requested additional time to wait for the delivery of the Constitutional Court’s judgment on the application of Academics for Peace and the evaluation of the Judicial Reform Package that is supposed to come in force in September. The court rejected the request for additional time on the grounds that they had already granted continuance at the previous hearing.
Reminding the court that 3 years and 27 days had passed since the prosecution began, Fincancı said “I joined the substitute editor-in-chief campaign on 30 May 2016. When I went to the newspaper’s office, I saw on the walls the newspaper’s perpetually changing names. In order to retain its voice Özgür Gündem had to constantly change its name. Being a human rights defender I have performed my duty as a citizen and I used my right to freedom of expression. I do not accept your accusations.”
Addressing the court after Fincancı, Önderoğlu’s lawyer Tora Pekin said that they submitted a petition requesting to wait for the commencement of the Judicial Reform Package. Pekin said: “An early verdict will not benefit Turkey in any way. Let’s wait for the changes to be put in place, let’s wait for the Constitutional Court to render its judgment.”
The presiding judge interfered and said, “In the defense statements of the lawyers I sense that punishment is expected. Let’s continue the trial without waiting for the Constitutional Court and the Judicial Reform. We don’t always have to postpone and wait.” Pekin reiterated their previous defense statements and requested acquittal.
Önderoğlu’s lawyer Fikret İlkiz addressed the court and said: “None of the courts considered our objection pertaining to the prosecution being against the Constitution. And now you are saying we don’t have to wait for the Constitutional Court’s judgment. You raise the hopes of people by putting out there a promise of change with regard to freedom of expression. It is only natural for people to wait for this change to take place. If all these people come together to lend solidarity to a newspaper then all these convictions will be the punishment of this solidarity. The goal of this is to pressure. We request to wait for the Constitutional Court’s judgment.”
Ahmet Nesin’s lawyer Özcan Kılıç said: “At the last hearing I had requested the expansion of the investigation but since then your court has not made a single move. In addition to that, this file violates the principle of individual criminal responsibility. The defendants are being prosecuted over news stories they did not write.”
Fincancı’s lawyer Meriç Eyüboğlu also emphasized the impact the Judiciary Reform Package will have on the trial. She added that since Özgür Gündem trials always conclude with convictions, the request for additional time was reasonable under these conditions.
The presiding judge said: “We are waiting on similar applications with the Constitutional Court but here we have reached a final decision that does not necessitate the Constitutional Court’s evaluation of the individual applications.” The panel rejected the request for additional time.
Asked for her last words before the verdict, Fincancı said: “I do not find the word acquittal to be appropriate. We are here for a crime we have not committed. This prosecution is a waste of time for you and for us. I am not guilty. If there is a crime to identify here I would like to repeat that the obstruction of freedom of expression itself is a crime.”
Issuing its verdict after a very brief recess, the court acquitted Fincancı, Önderoğlu and Nesin of all charges.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates its call for the Turkish authorities to dismiss the case against its Turkey representative and two other human rights defenders after an Istanbul court today adjourned their trial for the seventh time in nearly two years.
RSF also appeals for as much support as possible for the next hearing, scheduled for 28 January, at which the prosecution is finally expected to present its summing-up and announce the sentences it wants the court to impose.
Attended by two of the three defendants, RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu and human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı, today’s hearing was adjourned after just five minutes on the grounds that the court needs to examine the written statement sent by the third defendant, Ahmet Nesin, who has fled the country.
All three are facing up to 14 years in prison on charges of “propaganda for a terrorist organization,” “condoning crime” and “inciting crime” for taking part in a campaign of solidarity with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem.
“This threat hanging over our colleagues sends an intimidatory message to Turkey’s journalists and civil society that is unacceptable,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, who attended the hearing. “We call for the broadest possible support for the next hearing, at which the prosecution is to present its summing-up.”
Önderoğlu added: “Our only crime was to defend pluralism and we will continue to do so. We call on the justice system to recognize civil society’s legitimate role and to end these arbitrary prosecutions.”
A leading press freedom defender who has represented RSF in Turkey since 1996, Önderoğlu and his two fellow defendants have been on trial since November 2016 for their role in a campaign to defend media pluralism.
In all, around 40 people have been or are being prosecuted for taking part in the campaign, in which they symbolically took turns at being Özgür Gündem’s “editor for a day” in mid-2016 because it had been the victim of judicial persecution. It ended up being forcibly closed in August 2016.
Özgür Gündem’s successor, Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, was itself placed under judicial control in March of this year. Önderoğlu and his two co-defendants are the only participants to have been arrested in connection with this campaign. They spent ten days in provisional detention in June 2016.
Representatives of PEN International and Norwegian PEN and diplomats from France, Luxembourg, Norway and the United Kingdom also attended today’s hearing at a court in the Istanbul district of Çağlayan.
Eleven other journalists, including Faruk Eren, Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, İhsan Çaralan and Fehim Işık, are due to appear in court tomorrow in Istanbul for taking part in the same solidarity campaign.
The already worrying situation of Turkey’s media has become critical since an abortive coup in July 2016. Many media outlets have been closed summarily, without any effective form of recourse, mass trials are being held and Turkey now holds the world record for the number of professional journalists in prison. It is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
9 November 2016:
The charges stem from the coverage of the now-shuttered pro-Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem on the days when each symbolically acted as co-editor of the publication to protest authorities' relentless judicial harassment of its staff. A court ordered the newspaper closed and police raided its Istanbul office on August 16, CPJ reported at the time.
The court adjourned the trial of the three until January 11. They are free, pending the conclusion of their trials. The newspaper's responsible news editor, İnan Kızılkaya, is a codefendant in each case, as his position made him responsible for everything the newspaper published. He is jailed, pending the conclusion of dozens of trials against him.
1 July 2018:
22 June 2016:
Journalists and activists have been taking turns acting as co-editor of the newspaper Özgür Gündem for a day to show solidarity with the newspaper's staff, who have been the subject of relentless judicial harassment. To date, authorities have opened criminal investigations into at least 37 of the journalists, academics, and rights activists who have participated in the campaign.
Meanwhile, Fincancı, Önderoğlu, and Nesin released messages from prison via their lawyers.
"I was expecting this decision. I am not surprised. Being here in such a period is an indication that we have done something good. It is an honor to be arrested by the state in Turkey," Fincancı, a rights activist, said, in remarks carried by the news website Bianet.
"I don't remember a period in which legal intimidation has become this visible," Önderoğlu, Turkey representative for the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said in remarks reported by Bianet. "Embracing our values of freedom will gain us more strength."
"If they think we will give up our demands for peace and democracy by arresting us, they are wrong," Nesin, a contributor to the opposition Cumhuriyetnewspaper, said in remarks carried by the local media.