12 September 2019:
Supreme Court overturns convictions in Cumhuriyet trial
Supreme Court of Appeals also rules for Önder Çelik, Güray Öz, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara and Mustafa Kemal Güngör to be freed from prison
The Chamber overturned the convictions against Akın Atalay, Orhan Erinç, Murat Sabuncu, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya and Ahmet Şık. The Chamber also ruled for a stay of execution concerning Önder Çelik, Bülent Utku, Güray Öz, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara and Mustafa Kemal Güngör. who were sentenced to less than five years in prison on the same charge and who returned to prison in April to serve the remainder of their sentences after their convictions were upheld in February by an appellate court. The Chamber ruled for the five imprisoned defendants to be released so as to prevent what might in the future entail a rights violation. The Chamber also ruled to lift the arrest warrant issued for Bülent Utku.
In accordance with the ruling, Çelik, Öz, Kart, Kara and Güngör were released from the Kandıra F Type Prison in the Kocaeli province late at night on 12 September 2019.
On 16 July 2019, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals had requested the reversal of the convictions against Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Aydın Engin and Ahmet Şık and the acquittal of all defendants except Şık. The Office of the General Prosecutor also said in their judicial opinion that the acquittal decision should apply to all other co-defendants in the case who were sentenced to less than five years in jail, except Emre İper.
The 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in line with the judicial opinion by the General Prosecutor, overturning former Cumhuriyet staffers’ convictions on the charge of “aiding a terrorist organization.”
The Chamber said that the elements of the “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” charge were not present in the cases and all should be acquitted except for Ahmet Şık, who was sentenced to 7 years and 6 months in prison on the same charge. The Chamber ruled that Şık should instead be charged with “legitimizing the acts of a terrorist group” and “denigrating the bodies and organs of the state of the Turkish Republic.”
The Chamber also ruled to impose travel bans on Güray Öz, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Önder Çelik and Bülent Utku.
The Chamber upheld the appellate court’s ruling concerning the conviction against Emre İper, a former accounting department employee with Cumhuriyet. İper remained in prison, serving the remainder of the 3-year sentence he was given on the “aiding a terrorist group” charge. Once the reasoned judgment by the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals is issued, the case will be sent back to the trial court, the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
The Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals has requested the reversal of the verdict in the Cumhuriyet trial, which convicted former Cumhuriyet journalists and executives Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Aydın Engin and Ahmet Şık of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.”
The Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals said in their judicial opinion that all defendants except Şık should have been acquitted of all charges, while Şık should have been charged with “praising a [terrorist] group and violence” and “propaganda,” facing a combined sentence between 3.5 and 13.5 years.
The prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to reject the appeals filed by Emre İper and Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu.
The prosecutor also sought the reversal of the verdicts for five former Cumhuriyet staffers who are currently in prison because they were handed down prison sentences less than five years.
The case file will be overseen by the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals.
Top court issues judgments in Ahmet Altan case, 13 others
The Constitutional Court’s Plenary has issued the judgments concerning its 3 May 2019 decisions, in which it rejected the individual applications filed on behalf of jailed journalists Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and former Cumhuriyet staff members including Murat Sabuncu and Ahmet Şık.
All nine applications, filed in 2016 and 2017, asserted that the applicants’ arrests violated their rights to liberty and security and freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The top court’s judgments were published on 26 June 2019 on the court’s official website. The judgments concerning the rejected applications said, in a nutshell, that “the assessments made by the investigation authorities and the decisions rendered by the courts that ruled for [the journalists’] arrests could not be deemed as ‘arbitrary and baseless’.”
In Ahmet Altan’s application, the President of the Constitutional Court Zühtü Arslan, Vice President Engin Yıldırım and three other justices disagreed with the majority opinion. All five judges were of the opinion that Altan’s arrest violated his rights to liberty and security and freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
In his four-page dissenting opinion, Constitutional Court President Zühtü Arslan wrote that the investigation authorities have “failed to demonstrate relevant and sufficient grounds proving that the contents of Altan’s columns and his commentary, held as evidence against him, constituted strong indication of guilt.”
“Based on several sentences excerpted from two columns by Altan that were included in his investigation file, the investigation authorities have alleged that Altan had prior knowledge of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt and laid the groundwork for a coup, however, the same authorities have failed to provide the factual grounds to prove this claim,” Arslan wrote.
Regarding the allegation in the investigation file that “Taraf newspaper, under Altan’s administration as editor-in-chief, published content in line with the objectives of the FETÖ/PDY terrorist organization,” Arslan wrote that the investigation authorities have “also failed to factually demonstrate that the newspaper content that constituted the grounds for Altan’s arrest was published in line with the objectives of the terrorist organization and based on instructions from the said terrorist organization.”
Vice-President Engin Yıldırım also wrote in his dissenting opinion that among the grounds for Altan’s arrest, there was no evidence factually demonstrating a strong suspicion other than certain expressions and his harsh criticism in his columns and his commentary. Yıldırım wrote: “For certain expressions the applicant has used in some of his columns and his commentary to be deemed ‘strong indication of guilt’ does not amount to anything beyond a speculative assessment.”
Yıldırım wrote that Altan’s columns and commentary that constitute the basis for the accusations “neither laid the groundwork nor called for a coup, but were rather aimed as a warning about the potential chaos which the policies adopted and the discourse employed by certain political figures whom Altan had been harshly criticising could stir and at informing the public about their possible consequences. Yıldırım wrote: “Speaking of a probable coup and supporting a coup are not the same thing. Otherwise, anyone who speaks about the danger of a coup or other internal disturbances could later be accused of laying the groundwork for the coup in the event the coup they had warned of does indeed take place at some point.”
At the end of two days of deliberations on 2 and 3 May, the Constitutional Court’s Plenary had rejected the applications of Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak, who is Altan’s co-defendant in the “coup” case, Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık and six former Cumhuriyet Foundation executives, including Önder Çelik and Musa Kart. The judgments issued on 26 June revealed that the Plenary had ruled that Ahmet Şık’s application was “inadmissible.”
The top court had found rights violations in the files of journalists Kadri Gürsel, Murat Aksoy and Ali Bulaç.
2 May 2019:
Turkey's Constitutional Court rejects appeals from four Cumhuriyet staff
Turkey’s highest legal body has rejected applications from four out of nine Turkish journalists who appealed against their jail sentences on grounds their rights had been infringed on.
Nine of the Constitutional Court (AYM)’s 15 judges voted against accepting the appeal by Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık and Bülent Utku, former staff of the secularist daily Cumhuriyet who were jailed in the wake of a coup attempt in July 2016 for alleged links to outlawed organisations.
The journalists were returned to prison last month after a court rejected their appeals against the long prison sentences handed to them and 11 other former staff at Cumhuriyet.
Turkish prosecutors say the journalists aided both the Gülen religious movement, which the government blames for the 2016 coup attempt, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed group that has fought Turkish security forces since the 1980s.
Ahmet Şık, an investigative journalist, spent around a year in jail from March 2011 after publishing a book critical of the Gülen movement and its founder, Fethullah Gülen.
The AYM ruled in favour of Kadri Gürsel, a former Cumhuriyet journalist, and Murat Aksoy, who wrote for the shuttered daily Yeni Hayat, who had been hit with similar charges.
The court ruled that Gürsel and Aksoy’s personal freedoms and security and freedom of expression had been breached, and ordered 40,000 lira ($6,700) compensation paid to Aksoy, Turkish news site Gazete Duvar reported.
The AYM will convene again on Friday to review appeals by two more journalists sentenced in relation to the 2016 coup attempt, Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak.
International rights groups have expressed long-running concerns about press freedom in Turkey, which has been known as the world's leading jailer of journalists for years running.
Six former Cumhuriyet employees returning to prison a second time
Journalists and executives that worked for the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper are waiting for final procedures to be completed before entering prison on Thursday, after a court in Istanbul upheld their prison sentences, Diken news site reported .
Some 15 staff of Cumhuriyet were handed out long prison sentences last year in April in the Cumhuriyet trials, during which the prosecutors claimed the newspaper aided the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish group designated as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, and the Gülen movement, followers of an Islamist preacher accused of plotting the failed July 2016 coup attempt.
Journalists Ahmet Şık and Aydın Engin and the newspapers former editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu received seven-and-a-half-year sentences. Journalists Hikmet Çetinkaya and Orhan Erinç received six years and six months each, while cartoonist Musa Kart and four other Cumhuriyet staff, Güray Öz, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Hakan Kara and Önder Çelik received 45-month sentences. Columnist Kadri Gürsel was handed a 30-month sentence, while the court decided to handle files of former editor in chief Can Dundar and Cumhuriyet's former Washington reporter Ilhan Tanir separately since they were not in Turkey. All defendants in Turkey were held in pre-trial detention and were released at different stages of the trial.
The defendants appealed the ruling, but the regional court upheld the sentences. According to the Turkish law, those who are sentenced to more than five years in prison can apply to the Supreme Court of Appeals. For sentences less than five-year in prison, the defendants have to go to prison once the verdict is issued.
Accordingly, six of the defendants went to the courthouse today for the finalisation of the procedures. The journalists will serve the rest of their sentences in Kandıra prison in the northwestern province of İzmit, Diken said.
Appellate court upholds convictions in Cumhuriyet trial
An appellate court upheld on 18 February convictions against 14 former journalists and executives of the Cumhuriyet daily, paving the way for the return of eight of them to prison to serve the remainder of their terms.
14 columnists and executives of the paper handed down prison sentences varying between 2.5 years and 8 years, 1 month and 15 days
Fourteen columnists and executives of Cumhuriyet daily were convicted of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” at the final hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial on April 25, held at a courtroom inside the Silivri Prison compound.
The 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul handed down prison sentences varying between 2 years and 6 months and 8 years, 1 month and 15 days to 14 of the newspaper’s columnists and executives standing trial in the case, while acquitting three of the suspects and separating the files of two journalists from the case.
The court handed down the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, reporter Ahmet Şık and the 77-year-old veteran columnist Aydın Engin seven-and-a-half years in prison each, while Akın Atalay, the chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation’s executive board, was sentenced to 8 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison, the lengthiest sentence in the verdict. The court ruled to release Atalay, who spent more than 500 days in pretrial detention as part of the case, awaiting the appeal process.
Orhan Erinç, an 82-year-old veteran journalist, who is the president of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, and columnist Hikmet Çetinkaya were each handed down 6 years and 3 months in prison.
Columnist Kadri Gürsel was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months, while cartoonist Musa Kart, columnist Hakan Kara, reader representative Güray Öz, executive board members Önder Çelik and Mustafa Kemal Güngör were sentenced to 3 years and 9 months.
The newspaper’s attorney Bülent Utku was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months while accounting department employee Emre İper was sentenced to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison.
Turhan Günay, the editor of the newspaper’s book supplement, was acquitted of both the “abuse of authority” and the “helping a terrorist organization without being its member” charges. Günay had spent 272 days in pretrial detention before his release in 2017. Accountants Bülent Yener and Günseli Özaltay were also acquitted.
All of the defendants charged with “abuse of authority” in the indictment were acquitted of that charge.
Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, a suspect in the case who was purported to be the user of the Twitter account with the handle “JeansBiri” and charged with “leading a terrorist organization,” was handed down 10 years in prison. The court ruled for the continuation of his detention.
The court ruled to impose judicial control measures on all of the suspects who were handed down prison sentences.
The 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul also ruled to separate the files of Can Dündar and İlhan Tanır from the case.
The second day of the hearing began with lawyers’ closing remarks.
Duygun Yarsuvat, defense attorney for Cumhuriyet Executive Board Chairperson Akın Atalay, said in his address to the court that the case was politically motivated, adding: “There is nothing in this indictment that can be handled through principles of criminal law. The rule of law has been sacrificed in this case, designed to silence Cumhuriyet.”
Also criticising the expert opinion submitted to the case file, Yarsuvat said the experts drafted their reports using information readily available in open sources. Yarsuvat also said that one of the experts had proven in a Tweet he had posted that he was an admirer of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, adding: “This expert does not hold an academic title. His only significance is being a member of the foundation headed by Bilal Erdoğan.”
Yarsuvat also touched upon Article 220/7 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), upon which the accusations against Cumhuriyet columnists and executives rest. Yarsuvat said the term “aiding” in the charge of “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member” meant “providing material aid,” adding, “We cannot modify articles of the penal code in order to please those in power.”
Yarsuvat said the prosecutor attempted to prove his allegation that “the newspaper’s editorial policy had been changed” through witness testimonies based on hearsay.
He also said Atalay and editor in chief Murat Sabuncu to have attended the Abant Platform meetings, put together by the Gülen network-affiliated Gazeteci ve Yazarlar Vakfı (Journalists and Writers Association), were held as evidence against both Atalay and Sabuncu. Is it a crime that they attended those meetings? Burhan Kuzu, Cemil Çiçek and Fehmi Koru were among participants too. Why haven’t these meetings, held since 1997, been banned then?
Speaking after Yarsuvat, defense attorney Abbas Yalçın told the court that despite a confidentiality order to have been issued on the investigation file, the information contained in the file were leaked to pro-government media outlets.
Lawyer Tora Pekin said that Cumhuriyet had been already overwhelmed with countless court decisions ordering the court to publish retractions, decisions to ban access to articles and criminal cases brought against it, but even then no one had thought of a court case where Cumhuriyet journalists would be charged with aiding three different terrorist organizations.
Pekin said the defendants and lawyers were giving statements for the past two days knowing that the court was unlikely to rule for acquittal, but added that it was still important to make these statements as they would be put on record. “You cannot commit an unlawful act through publications that are lawful. You cannot find any word that recommends or praises violence in the news reports and articles published in Cumhuriyet because there isn’t any,” said Pekin.
Commenting on the news reports and articles included in the case file, Pekin said they consist of those which criticize government actions such as those about interception of Syria-bound trucks carrying arms, and those about the Kurdish issue. “Talking about certain issues disturbs the government, so it is a crime!” he said, adding that the prosecutor was of the view that Cumhuriyet could not publish any critical reports on the Kurdish issue because it was a “nationalist, statist and traditionalist newspaper.”
Pekin also recalled that, according to the law, the statute of limitations to file charges in connection with news reports was four months after publication. “This limit was introduced to ensure the journalists will not feel under pressure all the time. Otherwise, anyone can be prosecuted any time for a tweet they posted or an article they wrote any time in the past,” he said.
Responding to the accusations stemming from the fact that Cumhuriyet had used the same headlines in a few occasions with the shuttered Zaman daily that was affiliated with the now-banned Gülen network, Pekin said it was now a common occurrence in Turkey that about 10 newspapers use the same headline for the same story, but when Cumhuriyet uses the same headline with Zaman in a couple of instances, it is considered an anomaly.
Speaking after Pekin, defense attorney Fikret İlkiz said in his address to the court that the prosecutor alleged that Cumhuriyet had “actively aided terrorist organizations from 2013 up until the coup attempt of July 15, 2016.” “So why did you not press charges back then” İlkiz asked.
“Journalists and lawyers standing trial in this case are being criminalized for being journalists and lawyers. The very existence of this newspaper is considered a crime. The fact that no documents to indict my clients to have come up during searches on their homes is considered a crime,” İlkiz said.
Defendants’ closing speeches
Following the defense attorneys, the court asked the defendants to make their closing speeches before a recess ahead of the verdict. Below is what they said.
Akın Atalay: Whatever the verdict, we would like everyone to know that Cumhuriyet newspaper and we Cumhuriyet staff will never give up our fight against malice. We will fight until our last breath to prevent malice from becoming routine in this society.
Kadri Gürsel: We have been jailed because we are journalists. We have been presented with a crumbling, hollow, baseless indictment. Our lengthy pretrial detention turned into the execution of a penalty. Our right to fair trial has been violated. During my defense statement I defended my occupation and answered the allegations which I think are absurd. Now you are facing a tough decision. Because you will render a judgment based on a case file that includes no evidence. Which means, you will be issuing your verdict using your reason and your conscience. And I believe you will do so. I do not want to regret this belief. We will leave this courtroom with dignity and continue doing our jobs. I request our acquittal.
Güray Öz: Journalism is being put on trial in this case — which is a tough task. Accusing Cumhuriyet newspaper of [helping] a terrorist organization and of being FETÖ’ists is beyond all reason. I hope this does not turn out to be the case.
Murat Sabuncu: Being free is such a delightful thing [but] one only comes to appreciate when one loses it. Cumhuriyet journalists have always spoken the truth, no matter the circumstances. Journalism is not a crime.
Turhan Günay: Journalism is not a crime.
Aydın Engin: You had once told me that I had “the spirit of James Bond,” which I had taken as a compliment. But on second thought, I figured Bond was at the service of her majesty, whereas I am at the service of the public. The public’s right to access to information is being put on trial in this case. And you are obliged to defend the public’s right to access to information; it’s a tough task, but I cannot be of help, you’ll do it on your own.
Hikmet Çetinkaya: I wrote for years in Cumhuriyet about who Fethullah Gülen really was and his purpose. I am now accused of helping Gülen, and I reject all the accusations. Journalism is not a crime. The real crime is attempting to establish sharia rule.
Orhan Erinç: I saved my final speech for our lawyers: I would like to express my gratitude to our defense lawyers.
Mustafa Kemal Güngör: An unfair treatment on one person is an unfair treatment on the entire society. Stop this unfair treatment that has been going on for months.
Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu: I am mostly affected by the feeling of longing. Put an end to my longing for my daughter.
Ahmet Şık: I’m beginning my words by saying, “This is just the beginning.” The purpose of this setup perpetrated by a gang formed by some of the members of political, bureaucratic and media circles, was clear from day one. Then, on behalf of those who have been standing against unlawfulness and violation of rights for their entire lives, let’s respond to this gang by repeating what we’ve been saying all along: It’s you who should surrender. Source
The Chief Prosecutor's Office of Istanbul released an official statement soon after the raid, saying the journalists were detained on suspicion of producing propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and what the government calls the Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization (FETÖ), two rival groups the Turkish government classes as terrorist organizations. The statement said investigators were looking into alleged irregularities in the last elections of the board of directors of the foundation that owns Cumhuriyet, and that the newspaper published pro-coup propaganda in advance of a July 2016 failed coup attempt.
Istanbul's Ninth Court of Penal Peace on November 6, 2016, jailed Sabuncu and eight other Cumhuriyet journalists and directors, pending trial on accusations of "acting on behalf of an armed terrorist organization while not being a member." Because an October 30, 2016, court order made the investigation into the newspaper, its staff, and employees secret, defense lawyers and the public have limited access to the state's evidence.
Cumhuriyet reported that the court's order to jail Sabuncu and his colleagues pending trial cited several of the newspaper's news stories and headlines that authorities claimed were propaganda for FETÖ and the PKK.
Among the reports that interrogators raised was a 2015 article alleging that Turkey's intelligence service was smuggling weapons to Islamist groups in Syria under cover of humanitarian aid, according to Cumhuriyet. Can Dündar--who resigned as the newspaper's editor in August 2016 and announced he would not return to Turkey until the state of emergency imposed after the July 2016 failed coup attempt was lifted--and former Ankara correspondent Erdem Gül face a separate trial in connection with that report. CPJ in November 2016 honored Dündar with its International Press Freedom Award.
Cumhuriyet also reported, citing the court document, that authorities accused the newspaper of being sympathetic to the Gülenist network because the newspaper referred to the group as the "Hizmet movement," as its adherents do, rather than using the government's name, FETÖ. Authorities argued that Cumhuriyet, Turkey's oldest newspaper, had changed its editorial policy, and that it was being manipulated by FETÖ and the PKK, Cumhuriyet reported.
The Cumhuriyet trial began on July 24, 2017. According to theindictment, prosecutors alleged that the newspaper’s journalism was evidence of its affiliation with the outlawed organizations. The hearings centered on the contents of the paper’s news reports and columns and its selection of stories for the front page.
Prosecutors alleged that the ruling board of the foundation that publishes the newspaper was altered with intent to remove members who would object to the alleged editorial policy supportive of terror groups.
Sabuncu is charged with “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being a member,” according to the indictment.
In the course of the trial, the court has ordered all but three of the defendants to be released on probation pending the outcome, according to reports.
The next hearing was scheduled for December 25, 2017. The journalist is detained in Silivri Prison, Istanbul.*
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