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24.07.2019

A week full of inconsistencies in Turkey - Erol Önderoğlu acquitted but many others still detained

by ECPMF

In a busy week for Turkey’s courts, the ECPMF sent two representatives to Turkey in order to monitor court hearings and to meet with journalists, defendants, lawyers, consuls and press freedom and human rights organisations.

A week full of inconsistencies in Turkey - Erol Önderoğlu acquitted but many others still detained Inside Caglayan Justice Palace Istanbul. Photo: ECPMF

The court week was supposed to start on Tuesday with the long-awaited fourth hearing in the trial of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel. The Constitutional Court ruled in June that his one-year long detention without a formal indictment was unlawful – but his trial was adjourned until October 2019. Yücel faces “terrorist propaganda” charges and has left the country.

Another very important trial took place the next day. Three journalists who had taken part in the Özgür Gündem, “Editors-in-Chief On Watch” campaign, launched in solidarity with the Kurdish media outlet were tried in a final hearing at Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court on Wednesday. In a surprise move, Erol Önderoğlu, the Reporters without Borders (RSF) representative in Turkey, journalist Ahmet Nesin and head of the Turkey Human Rights Foundation Şebnem Korur Fincancı were acquitted. The only defendant who was present at the trial was Korur Fincancı. Afterwards she said: "I do not recognise the expression of 'acquittal', because I am not guilty. If a definition of crime will be made here, I would like to indicate that violating freedom of expression is a crime."

After his acquittal, Erol Önderoğlu expressed his anger on the Turkish courts, asking why other journalists in other Özgür Gündem solidarity trials were convicted or remain unlawfully imprisoned if justice is there for everyone. No consistency can be seen in the judicial decisions: earlier, other defendants, such as Ayşe Düzkan, Faruk Eren and Murat Çelikkan have been convicted of the same charges as Önderoğlu and the others. The RSF representative’s legal fight is far from over: in November, a new trial against him will start, he is facing charges of “terror propaganda for Academics for Peace solidarity”.

The trial of the actual Özgür Gündem staff, which took place on the same day, was adjourned after only a few minutes. Consultant Board members Necmiye Alpay, Aslı Erdoğan, Ragıp Zarakolu, Filiz Koçali, Eren Keskin, Editors-in-Chief Zana Kaya, İnan Kızılkaya, Kemal Sancılı and Bilge Oykut must stand trial in November.

Gezi Park Davasi, films in court and a surprise

On Thursday resumed the Gezi Park trial: It was originally planned to go on for two days, but the judges pushed for an interim verdict on Day One. For their participation in the Gezi Park protests in 2013, civil society leader Osman Kavala and other 15 defendants – among them journalist Can Dündar – are facing allegations of “attempting to overthrow the government of the Turkish Republic or to prevent it from performing its duties”. The trial has been adjourned to October. Kavala stays in prison – he has already been in pre-trial detention since November 2017. Following an order on 16 July to ban the website of the Gezi Defenders group, it was blocked on the day of the trial. The group tweetedYou can ban our website but not our solidarity.” The ECPMF signed a joint statement on 24 July underlining that this second hearing confirms the lack of rule of law in Turkey.

Cumhuriyet Cumhuriyet building entrance area. Photo: ECPMF

Surprising and unexpected news came Thursday in the afternoon: the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals requested that those Cumhuriyet defendants who had been sentenced to more than five years in April 2018 should be acquitted. The prosecutor added that this should also apply to those who were sentenced below five years. Their convictions were confirmed by a lower Court of Appeals on 25 April 2019 and six former Cumhuriyet members of staff and journalists were sent back to prison on baseless terrorism-related charges. But the Prosecutor now made two exceptions: former journalist Ahmet Şik, who is now an opposition HDP deputy, shall face new charges on ‘terrorist propaganda’ and Emre İper’s sentence of more than three years should be upheld. İper, who has been back in detention since April 2019, was Cumhuriyet’s accountant. The ECPMF Advocacy Officer Nora Wehofsits comments:

“We were happy to hear of a possible acquittal for the others in this absurd trial after long judicial harassment. But we regard it as a clear political decision in the cases of İper and Şik. They all must be acquitted.“

As if that was not enough for one day, Zaman daily’s former Managing Editor Harun Çümen was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison for “membership of a terrorist organisation” by the İstanbul 32nd High Criminal Court. Çümen already had been in pre-trial detention for 16 months by the time of the verdict.

Not only journalists but also film-makers were on trial during this week. At Batman 2nd High Criminal Court, Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu were sentenced in absentia on Thursday to four years and six months each, based on charges of “terrorist propaganda” for their documentary film “Bakur” (“The North”) about Kurdish guerrilla fighters. The verdict was condemned in a solidarity action that the ECPMF attended on Saturday: “Sinema Yargilanamaz - keep films out of courts!"

A peculiar aftertaste

After a July trip to Turkey, most people bring back some nice souvenirs - sweets, snapshots or soap.

The ECPMF representative’s impressions are different: there have been positive developments and we welcome the acquittal in the trial on Wednesday. People tell us they have new hope, following the municipality elections and the latest court verdicts. The IPI launched a report on Tuesday, conducted by Emre Kızılkaya, titled “It won’t always be like this” on the future of quality journalism in the country.  We heard some constructive suggestions how to improve the situation – including more training opportunities for journalists on legal issues as well as for lawyers on freedom of expression. Lawyers also face harassment, for instance from the tax authorities, and more than 400 lawyers are behind bars.

Despite some improvements, the situation remains very bad in Turkey: In the second quarter of 2019, 213 journalists stood trial and 14 journalists were taken into custody. 197 media representatives face 10 aggravated life sentences and a total of 2,362 years in prison. Three journalists have almost died in this period.

Meeting with people who are jailed for defending human rights or for informing the public in a situation where there is no consistency in sentencing and no independent judiciary still leaves a bad and peculiar aftertaste. Then departing back to ‘normal life’ in a Western democracy is never an easy switch – Turkey needs to stay at the centre of attention! As Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders tweeted after the Gezi Park trial: “Kafka is still alive and well in Turkey”.