(Berlin) — Three Turkish journalists were convicted on February 16, 2018 on bogus charges related to the failed coup of 2016 and sentenced to life in prison, Human Rights Watch said today. They are the first journalists convicted of involvement in the coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Three other people were convicted on similar charges in the same case.
The journalists are Ahmet Altan, the former editor of the now defunct daily Taraf; Mehmet Altan, an economist and columnist; and the prominent commentator Nazlı Ilıcak. They were sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment on charges of “trying to overthrow the constitutional order.” The evidence against them consisted largely of their journalistic work, none of which advocated violence. The Istanbul area court hearing the case and the authorities both ignored an order by Turkey’s top court in January to release Mehmet Altan.
“The case against the Altan brothers, Ilıcak, and the others has been politically motivated from the very start,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The verdict sets a frightening precedent for the dozens of cases of other journalists, writers, and government critics currently on trial in Turkey.”
The Altans were first detained on September 10, 2016 over alleged links to the movement of United States-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the Turkish government deems a terrorist organization and blames for the violent coup attempt. Ilıcak was detained on July 26, 2016, during an operation that targeted journalists allegedly linked to the Gülen movement, and was formally placed under arrest three days later.
On September 22, 2016, an appeal judge in Istanbul ordered the release of Ahmet Altan while his case continued. But the prosecutor appealed the decision and he was remanded in custody less than 24 hours later on charges including the “attempt to overthrow the government” and “membership in a terrorist organization.” Also on September 22, the same court ordered Mehmet Altan kept in detention pending trial on the same charges.
The evidence cited in the indictment seen by Human Rights Watch appears to consist entirely of their work as journalists: news and opinion articles, as well as phone records and contact with alleged Gülenists. All of the cited journalistic works are expressions of opinions that are critical of the government but do not incite or advocate violence. There appears to be nothing that would indicate any kind of criminal wrongdoing, much less helping terrorism or planning a coup.
The trial of the journalists and four other defendants started on June 19, 2017 in the 26th Istanbul Heavy Penal Court. It was marred by procedural unfairness that undermined the defendants’ right to a defense. On November 13, the trial judge dismissed the Altans’ entire defense team, allegedly for “disorderly conduct in court.” The defense team had protested the judge’s refusal to let them see all the evidence against their clients prior to the prosecutor’s final statement, and subsequently accused the judge of being “partial.”
On February 12, the judge again ordered the lawyers for the Altan brothers and another defendant to be removed from court for “disorderly conduct” after they requested the inclusion of Constitutional Court decision on Mehmet Altan’s detention in the trial records. The trial was subsequently moved to a court in Silivri prison and continued there on February 13.
On January 11, the Turkish Constitutional Court, the highest in the country, had ruled that the pre-trial detention of Mehmet Altan for over a year violated his rights and was not supported by any substantial evidence, and ordered his immediate release. The lower courts refused to carry out this decision, in violation of Article 153 of the Turkish Constitution. The Turkish government backed the lower court’s defiance of the Constitutional Court. Six of the defendants in this case, including the Altan brothers and Ilıcak, were held in extended pre-trial detention of up to 19 months. The sentences handed down today mean that the defendants will have to serve at least 36 years in prison.
The other defendants include Fevzi Yazıcı, visual art director of the now-shuttered daily newspaper Zaman, Zaman’s brand manager Yakup Şimşek, and retired Police Academy lecturer Tuğrul Özşengül. They were also convicted of “trying to overthrow the constitutional order” despite a lack of any substantive evidence connecting them to any advocacy of violence, support of the coup, or other similar criminal activity. Tibet Murad Sanlıman, the owner of an advertising agency, was acquitted. At least ten other defendants listed in the original indictment have fled the country. Their cases have been separated out from the case file.
A government crackdown against independent media has intensified since the attempted coup. Turkey is the world leader in prosecuting and jailing journalists and media workers, with about 150 behind bars. A German-Turkish journalist, Deniz Yücel was released on February 16 after more than a year in prison without being charged, but he has been indicted on charges that could lead to up to 18 years in prison, including for example, making “propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
“Deniz Yücel’s overdue release does not in any way obscure the farcical situation that he is facing charges at all,” Williamson said. “Together with the verdict against the Altans and Ilıcak, it shows how far the Turkish government is willing to go to pervert justice to snuff out dissenting voices.”