A Turkish court reporter Yakup Çetin faces lifetime jail over critical Tweets

A court reporter who had covered Turkey’s high-profile terrorism, organized crime, drug and corruption cases for years is being falsely accused of terrorism and coup plotting charges by the government.

Yakup Çetin, 31-year old journalist who has been in jail for 447 days, is facing two lifetimes sentencing over 13 Tweet messages and one article. His crime was the job he had with Zaman newspaper, one-time largest circulated daily in Turkey with 1.2 million copies sold at its peak. The paper was unlawfully seized by the government in March 2016 and turned into government mouthpiece overnight. It was later shut down in July.

Çetin posted some critical comments on Twitter when the paper was overtaken by hundreds of riot police storming newsroom in a complete disregard of the rule of law and due process. The police used force, teargassed and shot rubber bullets at peaceful Zaman readers who gathered outside the newspaper building in protest of the takeover with clapping, chanting songs.

“Our newspaper is under occupation” he wrote in Twitter after police forcibly removed editors and reporters from the newspaper building following the violent takeover on March 4, 2016. Turkish prosecutor Murat Çağlak considered this message as proof of membership to a terrorist organization. Other tweet messages include his comments on ongoing legal cases in Turkish courts. For example, when Istanbul court ruled for the acquittal of all 35 defendants on Dec. 29, 2015 in the trial of 35 members of a Beşiktaş football fan group, çArşı, who were accused of organizing a plot to topple the government during the 2013 Gezi Park protests, Çetin wrote that false narrative of Gezi being a coup by the government was trashed with this decision by the judges who are appointed to the bench by the ruling party.

Erdoğan accused Gezi park protestors of fomenting a coup against his government and the prosecutor charged football fans who joined the protests with coup plotting, terrorism, crime syndicate and breach of the law of demonstration and marches. All defendants were eventually acquitted of all charges. The case had no merits at all and was considered to be a politically motivated witch hunt by the government. Çetin was simply pointing out the obvious. Yet a year later, he was accused of similar charges just for stating this on the Twitter.

Apart from Tweet messages, the prosecutor listed an article written by Çetin about a defense statement by a police chief Yakub Saygılı who investigated December 17-25 corruption probes that incriminated senior government officials. In his statement on September 4, 2014, the police chief asked the wiretapped conversation between then prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son Bilal on how to get rid of stashed cash in the family’s house in Istanbul in the wake of graft probes that were made public.

Saygılı asked for an examination by internationally certified audio lab to authenticate the tape which was claimed as doctored by Erdoğan. The police chief also testified that his investigation identified Binali Yildirim, then transportation minister and now prime minister, as one of the key people who directed the graft network in the government. The journalist reported about this in the newspaper and that was listed two years later in the indictment as evidence of terrorism.

When Çetin learned about the detention warrant that was issued against him and other 41 journalists on July 26, 2016 from the pro-government dailies, he was in his hometown Bingöl. He voluntarily turned himself in after posting a message in his Twitter account saying that “I do not know the charges against me but I know I have committed no crime. I have been doing only journalist for six years.” He said he has strong belief in the democracy and never involved in any illegal business. “I’ve only done journalism,” he underlined.

Yet, he was formally arrested four days later by Istanbul No.1 Criminal Court of Peace and placed in prison on the pretext that he is a flight risk. He had to spend seven months in pre-trial detention when he finally learned about the charges against him and the purported evidence after the prosecutor filed the 196-page indictment. He faces two lifetime jail sentences on coup plotting charges and up to ten years on terrorism charges.

The first hearing in the case was held on March 27 by Istanbul No.25 High Criminal Court and Çetin had the opportunity to defend himself for the first time. “I felt embarrassed when I started drafting my defense statement on Tweet messages that were considered to be a criminal evidence. I erased the draft and rewrote again. I was also accused for retweeting. How could I be accused of a crime for sharing somebody else’s message,” he said. Çetin also revealed that during the deposition at prosecutor’s office, he got only asked two questions: One was about his resume and the other on whether he knew a government whistleblower that used the handle Fuat Avni on Twitter. Neither his tweet messages nor his published articles were brought up during the questioning.

Stressing that his Tweet messages criticizing the forceful takeover of Zaman was his reaction to an unlawful seizure of Turkey’s best-selling newspaper. Others were his legitimate criticism of a political party that he saw nothing wrong with. “Praising or criticizing a political party should not be considered to be a crime,” he noted. He also expressed his dismay at the inclusion of a defamation case by Erdogan against him, a case that he got already acquitted before. “This case was listed in the indictment as a criminal evidence against me,” he lamented. He remarked that he could have fled if he wanted but instead he chose to turn himself in with the hope that he would get a fair trial by a judge who has a good conscience.

To the surprise of many, the court decided to release 21 journalists including Çetin at the completion of first hearings. The moment after the court’s decision was announced, pro-government journalists including ones from Aydın Doğan’s media outlet Hürriyet, Erdoğanist trolls and figures in social media kicked off a campaign questioning the journalists’ release.

All of a sudden, a new detention orders issued and 13 journalists including Çetin were taken to the police station from the prison cell in a new cycle of processing that led them back to prison again with newly added charges. After a week of questioning and detention in police station, 13 journalists who faces abuse and ill-treatment were re-arrested on April 6, 2017 and put back in the prison.

Another 8 journalists who were ordered to be released were re-arrested after the prosecutor challenged the release order and the judge issued a new arrest warrant within hours without even examining their cases and hearing the defendants’ arguments. On April 3, 2017, presiding judge İbrahim Lorasdağı, judges Barış Cömert and Necla Yeşilyurt Gülbiçim and prosecutor Göksel Turan were all suspended by the Turkey’s judicial council the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK).

A new 314-page indictment prepared by İrfan Fidan, the chief public prosecutor in Istanbul, was filed against Çetin and others on charges of coup plotting based on the same evidence such as published articles and Tweet messages. The journalists face two lifetime sentences if they get convicted on these charges. On a hearing held on April 27, 2017, Çetin said he was angry about the trauma he experienced with decision to release him, only to be reversed within hours after campaign in pro-government media.

In addition to Çetin, other jailed journalists who got indicted on the same case are Murat Aksoy, Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu, Atilla Taş, Ünal Tanık, Mutlu Çölgeçen, Emre Soncan, Ufuk Şanlı, Büşra Erdal, Halil İbrahim Balta, Habip Güler, Seyid Kılıç, Mustafa Erkan Acar, Bayram Kaya, Hüseyin Aydın, Abdullah Kılıç, Yetkin Yıldız, Muhammet Sait Kuloğlu, Cemal Kalyoncu, Davut Aydın, Oğuz Usluer, Cuma Ulus, Ahmet Memiş and Oğuz Usluer. Journalists Cihan Acar, Bünyamin Köseli, Muhterem Tanık, and Ali Akkuş were released pending trial after serving a year in jail. Journalists Bülent Ceyhan and Said Sefa who are also included in then indictment remain at large.

Çetin had a passion for journalism when he was in the college majoring on history. He graduated from Marmara University in Istanbul in 2011. He started in a newspaper chasing court cases. When the newspaper Zaman was seized by the government, he was among those who got fired immediately. He took a job in another newspaper Yeni Hayat. That daily was shut down by the government in the aftermath of the failed coup bid on July 15, 2016.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the SCF has showed that 280 journalists and media workers are now in jails as of October 8, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 255 are arrested pending trial, only 25 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 134 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. Turkey’s Justice Ministry announced on July 13 that 50,510 people have been arrested and 169,013 have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

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