Turkey: unfair trials illustrate continuing onslaught on free speech

In December 2017, our colleagues from PEN International, PEN Belgium/Flanders, and PEN Turkey joined fellow organisations, the Aachen Peace Award organisation Reporters without Borders (RSF), to observe several hearings in the cases of Cumhuriyet daily, the Academics for Peace and the Özgür Gündem solidarity campaign, which took place in Çağlayan court house in Istanbul.

RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire, said:

These cases, individually and together, illustrate the onslaught on the right to freedom of expression in Turkey. We continue to call for the release of all journalists who are in prison for their journalistic activities and for the restoration of pluralism in Turkey.

On 25 December the Cumhuriyet hearing, scheduled to take place over two days and turn on hearing expert and witness testimonies, was cut short after the judge interrupted Ahmet Şık’s defence statement and expelled him from the courtroom for allegedly disrupting the proceedings, after which defence counsel requested the recusal of the judges.

Laurens Hueting, Europe Programme Coordinator for PEN International, who attended the hearing described proceedings as follows:

The trial has been characterised by procedural violations throughout. The lack of respect for the right of defence in yesterday’s hearing once again clearly shows the lack of independence and impartiality of the judiciary in the case.

Cumhuriyet staff, including English PEN’s former writer-in-residence Ahmet Şık, are facing criminal charges for allegedly supporting terrorist organisations. The prosecution is based primarily on a misreading of articles that appeared in the newspaper and insignificant contacts between journalists and sources.  Ahmet Şık and his colleagues Murat Sabuncu and Akın Atalay, as the case is adjourned to 9 March. Emre İper, an accounting department employee at Cumhuriyet was released on 29 December after more than 250 days in detention, and took the opportunity to pass a message from Şık to his supporters: ‘Ahmet says hello to you all’.

On 26 December, hearings were held in several cases of the Academics for Peace who are among a group of more than 1100 academics on trial. They are facing criminal charges for allegedly propagandising for and supporting a terrorist organisation, based on their undersigning of a declaration that calls for peace in the South-East of Turkey. It remains unclear whether charges based on article 301 of the criminal code, ‘insulting Turkishness’, will also be pursued. All cases were adjourned until April in light of the lack of clarity concerning the charges.

Denis Dion Dreisbusch of the Aachen Peace Award commented that:

The state should not hate people for peacefully expressing their opinion. These trials, instituted for calling for peace and dialogue, go against the most basic of democratic and human values.

Also on 26 December, the case against RSF’s representative in Turkey Erol Önderoglu, prominent human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı and writer Ahmet Nesin continued. They are being tried on charges of propagandising for a terrorist organisation, condoning crime and inciting crime for their participation in a solidarity campaign in mid-2016 with Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem, which was facing judicial persecution and was eventually forcibly closed in August 2016. In total, 41 people have been or are being prosecuted for their participation in the solidarity campaign with the newspaper. The case was adjourned in light of the absence of Nesin, who lives in exile in France.

‘We call for all on-going prosecutions to be dismissed and for the reversal of convictions in the cases related to Özgür Gündem,’ said Deloire. ‘The censorship of Özgür Gündem and the persecution of their supporters are an unacceptable attack on free media and those who stand up in its support.’

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