Turkish appeals court upholds aggravated life sentences for 6 journalists

A Turkish appeals court in İstanbul on Tuesday upheld aggravated life sentences handed down to six jailed journalists including prominent figures Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak.

The journalists were given the sentences by a high criminal court in İstanbul in February after their conviction of attempting to destroy the constitutional order.

The appeals hearing of Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Ilıcak as well as two former employees of the now-closed Zaman newspaper, Zaman brand marketing manager Yakup Şimşek and art director Fevzi Yazıcı, along with former Police Academy lecturer Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül, was held at the 2nd chamber of the İstanbul Regional Court of Law, which serves as an appeals court.

Ahmet Altan’s brother, Mehmet Altan, an economics professor and journalist, was also given an aggravated life sentence but was released pending appeal in June based on a decision of the Constitutional Court, which said Altan’s rights were violated during the trial. Mehmet Altan had been in pre-trial detention since September 2016.

Both Mehmet Altan and Ahmet Altan, who were detained on Sept. 10, 2016, were accused of sending “subliminal” messages regarding a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016, on a TV show a day before the abortive putsch.

The journalists who appeared in court on Tuesday for the final appeals hearing are charged with attempting to overthrow the “constitutional order,” “interfering with the work of the national assembly” and “interfering with the work of the government” through violence or force.

“This injustice has hurt me,” Ilıcak said in her final defense statement. “Almost all of the columnists who had been placed behind bars have been released, including those from the Zaman newspaper. I did not commit a crime. I ask for my acquittal.”

Ilıcak has previously denied alleged links to the Gülen movement.

Fevzi Yazıcı’s lawyer, Mesut Yazıcı, said his client had nothing to do with a Zaman daily TV commercial that is associated with the coup attempt, adding that the daily’s then-editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanlı had the only say over the paper’s TV commercials from their preparation for the broadcasting stage.

It is claimed in the indictment that the Zaman TV commercial, aired nine months, 10 days prior to the failed coup on July 15, 2016, was a signal for the military coup attempt by the Gülen movement. Prosecutor Murat Çağlak claimed that through TV ads in which a baby smiles after scenes of chaos the Gülen movement sent messages to its members.

Zaman was also closed down by the government following the coup attempt due to its links to the Gülen movement. The lawyer asked for the acquittal and release of his client.

In his defense, Mehmet Altan said he was given the jail sentence without any concrete evidence of a crime against him. The journalist read the Constitutional Court’s verdict on him, which ruled that his right to freedom and safety has been violated.

“With this ruling, the Constitutional Court protects me against those violating the Constitution. In line with this ruling, your court releases me and the state pays me compensation,” said Altan, adding that if there is law in Turkey, the only decision to emerge from the court should be his acquittal.

Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül, who was the next to deliver his defense, said he and the other defendants in the trial are unfortunately being subjected to a criminal law that is seen in fascist governments. “I am getting an aggravated life sentence without any concrete evidence being presented against me. … It is very surprising for me to be in this trial,” said Özşengül.

Yakup Şimşek said he has been jailed for 793 days without any concrete evidence of a crime against him. “I am asking for my acquittal or at least my release. Being tried without arrest is the norm. I want to see my old parents,” he said.

Ahmet Altan, who was the last to make his defense during Tuesday’s hearing, accused the court of disregarding the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Mehmet Altan, saying that he and the other defendants are being tried by judges who refuse to comply with the Constitution.

“They want to punish me, but they can’t find anything in the law and judicial system to legitimize it. They can’t find it and will not do so. Because I am right. I don’t care about spending my life in a prison cell because I feel myself wandering in a comic book. Nothing seems serious or startling to me. When you base a punishment on a ‘subliminal message,’ ‘immaterial force,’ ‘abstract threat,’ then that punishment has no seriousness,” Ahmet Altan said, underlining the weakness of the evidence against him.

Ahmet Altan, Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek and Ilıcak are serving aggravated life sentences, and as such, they are not eligible for parole and will not be considered in future amnesty decisions.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 236 journalists and media workers were in jail as of September 20, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 168 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 147 journalists who are living 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 some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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