Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, arrives at the Justice Palace in Istanbul, Turkey on March 25, 2016. 

(Istanbul) – A court ruling on March 25, 2016 to close the criminal trial of two journalists to the public undermines the rights of the defendants to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 14 ruled that the entire trial of Can Dündar, editor of the daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, on charges of obtaining and revealing state secrets for the purpose of espionage, should be closed to the public and the media on the grounds that some of the evidence pertained to state secrets. Lawyers acting for Dündar and Gül had argued that it was reasonable only to hold a closed hearing to discuss any evidence relating to state secrets but not to hold all trial hearings behind closed doors.

“The court’s decision to hold hearings in secret limits public scrutiny of a critical case and the administration of justice; directly undermining the defendants’ right to a fair trial,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The decision also ignores the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights that any exclusion of the public from a trial must be exceptional and narrowly tailored to balance national security with the public interest in justice.”

The court also ruled that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) could be interested parties (complainants) in the case, a decision that implies they are the directly injured parties. This exceptional step constitutes an undue interference in the independence of the judicial process and could lead to a violation of the right of the defendants to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.

Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights; the right to a fair trial as articulated in the Convention is binding on Turkey and its courts. In this regard, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly emphasized to states that the public character of proceedings protecting against the administration of justice in secret is important to ensure confidence in the courts and contributes to a fair trial, “the guarantee of which is one of the fundamental principles of any democratic society.”

The court has noted that security concerns alone justifying excluding the public from a trial are rare and even then, security measures should be narrowly tailored and comply with the principle of necessity. Specifically, the court has noted that, “The mere presence of classified information in the case file does not automatically imply a need to close a trial to the public without balancing openness with national-security concerns. Before excluding the public from criminal proceedings, courts must make specific findings that closure is necessary to protect a compelling governmental interest, and must limit secrecy to the extent necessary to preserve such an interest.”

After the court ruled that the entire trial was to be held in camera, a number of members of parliament observing the trial refused to leave the courtroom. In response, the judges postponed the trial to April 1, and lodged a complaint against the members of parliament for attempting to influence a judicial process.