Turkey: Former Cumhuriyet staff sent to jail

2.05.2019
The Turkish authorities must overturn the convictions of six former Cumhuriyet members of staff and journalists who were sent back to prison on 25 April 2019 on baseless terrorism-related charges and release them immediately and unconditionally, PEN International said today. The organisation further calls for the quashing of the convictions of eight other employees of Turkey’s oldest independent newspaper – some of whom have appeals pending before the country’s Court of Cassation.

‘We are profoundly dismayed by the decision to send former Cumhuriyet employees back to jail. These renowned journalists and brave staff do not belong behind bars and must be released at once. With this decision, the Turkish authorities have demonstrated once again their continuous efforts to restrict free speech and punish dissenting voices’ said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee. ‘Journalists, publishers, academics and writers have repeatedly fallen foul of the Turkish judiciary in proceedings marred by a distinct lack of evidence and fair trial violations. Those deemed to have dissented have few options for domestic remedy and are being jailed seemingly without proper scrutiny or any due diligence.’

On 25 April 2019, former Cumhuriyet columnist Hakan Kara, cartoonist Musa Kart, board member Mustafa Kemal Güngör, accountant Emre İper and ombudsman and journalist Güray Öz, presented themselves to the courthouse in Kocaeli, outside Istanbul, after their prison sentences were upheld on appeal in February 2019. They were sent back to Kandıra prison to carry out the rest of their sentences. They reportedly have up to 18 months left to serve, having already spent months in pre-trial detention.

The six were amongst 14 Cumhuriyet journalists and members of staff who were found guilty of ‘assisting a terrorist organisation whilst not being a member’ and spreading ‘propaganda of a terrorist organisation’ on 26 April 2018 and given prison sentences ranging between two years and six months and eight years and one month. According to Turkish law, sentences under five years – which applied to all six – are considered final and can only be overturned by the Constitutional Court.

PEN International has repeatedly expressed concerns about the arrests and charges brought against the Cumhuriyet employees since they were first detained and, along with PEN Centres and other human rights groups, observed court hearings. The trial brought little evidence of the defendants’ supposed offences to light, instead relying on social media reports and articles. Prosecutors accused them of helping terrorist organisations through telephone and internet contacts (some of the defendants claimed such phone calls had been made to enquire about vacation reservations), and in some cases through an encrypted telephone application called ByLock. PEN International continuously called on the Turkish authorities to drop the charges against Cumhuriyet staff, and notably submitted a joint third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights. Scores of PEN Centres and members across the world took action on the defendants’ behalf as part of PEN’s campaign.

Former Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel and lawyer Bülent Utku, who were respectively sentenced to two and a half years and four and a half years in prison, have yet to be summoned to go back to jail. Appeals of the other defendants in the case – Ahmet Şık, Akın Atalay, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Murat Sabuncu and Orhan Erinç – will be heard by Turkey’s Court of Cassation, which has jurisdiction over cases with penalties over five years of imprisonment. PEN International calls for their sentences and convictions to be quashed.

Additional information

Between 31 October 2016 and 18 April 2017, a total of 17 Cumhuriyet staff and board members were arrested and subsequently held in lengthy pre-trial detention at Silivri prison, outside Istanbul. It took prosecutors nine months to produce the indictment in which they accused the defendants of lending support to several terrorist organisations. The first hearing took place in July 2017 and, despite sustained observance of violations of the human rights of the defendants, including the right to freedom of expression, the right to liberty and security and the right to a fair trial, 14 Cumhuriyet staff were sentenced to prison on 26 April 2018; three were acquitted. Their sentences were upheld on appeal on 19 February 2019.

Eight of the defendants – Hakan Kara, Musa Kart, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Emre İper, Güray Öz, Kadri Gürsel and Bülent Utku – received prison sentences under five years. The verdicts were uploaded to Turkey’s National Judicial Informatics System on 19 April 2019, confirming that their imprisonment would imminently be going ahead. The OSCE Media Freedom Representative Harlem Désir called the decision ‘a criminal prosecution against media professionals for holding independent or critical views’. Turkey remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, with over 140 journalists and media workers behind bars.

Turkey’s judicial system has come under attack since the failed coup in July 2016. More than 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been permanently dismissed. The overloaded Constitutional Court has yet to rule on thousands of pending related cases. Constitutional amendments passed by referendum in April 2017 – and fully entered into force following the 2018 elections – have led to greater political control over the judiciary and risk further undermining the rule of law in Turkey. PEN International calls on the Turkish authorities to introduce measures to reinstate the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and prosecution services. The organisation further calls on the Turkish judiciary to honour their constitutional and international commitments to the rule of law and human rights, including by way of commitment to an independent and impartial judiciary and to the protection of freedom of expression.

For further details contact Aurélia Dondo at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338 email: [email protected]