ARTICLE 19 submits expert opinion in Altan brothers’ trial in Turkey

Famous Turkish novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan (left) and his academic/journalist brother Mehmet Altan have been in pre-trial detention on coup charges since September 2016.

International press freedom organization ARTICLE 19 has reportedly submited an expert opinion to İstanbul’s 26th High Criminal Court examining the charges against prominent novelists and political commentators, Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan on Monday.

The brothers are tried alongside 15 other defendants, with the first hearing on Monday. The case is the first trial of journalists accused of taking part in last year’s failed and controversial coup attempt. The charges are detailed in a 247-page long indictment, which identifies Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government as the victims.

An indictment drafted by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in April 2017, seeks three consecutive life sentences for the suspects on coup charges. The suspects mentioned in the indictment are former Zaman daily CEO Ekrem Dumanlı, former Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş, Samanyolu TV Washington representative Şemsettin Efe, Zaman daily journalist Abdülkerim Balcı, Zaman former deputy editor-in-chief Mehmet Kamış, Zaman executive Faruk Kardıç, Zaman daily design director Fevzi Yazıcı, Zaman brand manager Yakup Şimşek, Zaman culture and arts editor Ali Çolak, journalists Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan, Professor Osman Özsoy, academic Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül.

They are accused of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, the Turkish government and the Turkish Parliament. Emre Uslu and Tuncay Opçin, two journalists who have hundreds of followers on Twitter, are also mentioned in the indictment.

The Zaman daily, the Today’s Zaman newspaper and Samanyolu TV are among dozens of media outlets that were closed down by the government in the aftermath of the controversial failed coup attempt on July 15 due to their affiliation with the Gülen movement.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the court to consider international human rights in reaching its judgement and for the defendants to be acquitted and released from pre-trial detention.

The Altans have been charged with “attempting to overthrow the Turkish Grand National Assembly”, “attempting to overthrow the Government of Turkey”, “attempting to abolish the Constitutional order” and “Committing crimes on behalf of an armed terrorist organisation without being a member.” If found guilty, they could receive up to three aggravated life sentences.

ARTICLE 19 considers that the charges form part of a politically-motivated campaign of harassment against journalists and other dissenting voices in Turkey following the failed coup against President Erdoğan in July 2016.

The main evidence presented in the indictment are television interviews, news articles and opinion pieces, which comment on the political situation in Turkey and include criticism of the government. The Turkish government argues that writing these articles amounts to the use of force and violence to effectively overthrow the government in place.

“There is no possible causal link between the defendants’ news articles and the failed coup of July 2016,” said Gabrielle Guillemin, Senior Legal Officer for ARTICLE 19, “That the defendants may be sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment merely for publishing columns commenting on the political situation in Turkey is grossly disproportionate and would amount to a grave miscarriage of justice.”

Under international and European human right law, Turkey is obliged to ensure that restrictions on freedom of expression, and in particular on the freedom of the media, are provided by laws which are sufficiently clear and precise, pursue a legitimate aim and are necessary and proportionate in a democratic society.

ARTICLE 19 believes that the provisions which form the basis of the defendants’ indictment violate international standards on freedom of expression. The provisions are so vague as to be virtually meaningless and open the door to arbitrary interpretation.

“The majority of the 17 defendants on trial are currently either in exile or have been held in pre-trial detention for the last 10 months. On June 13, 2017 the European Court of Human Rights (ECthR) wrote to the Turkish government requesting its response to a number of questions to determine whether the human rights of ten detained journalists, including the Altans, have been violated due to the length of their pre-trial detention.

“ARTICLE 19 believes the trial to be politically motivated and calls on the authorities to drop all charges against the accused in the absence, in the indictment, of evidence of involvement in an internationally recognised crime and to immediately and unconditionally release those held in pre-trial detention.”

Turkey is the leading jailer of journalists in the world. The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has documented that 264 journalists are now in jails as of June 16, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 240 are arrested pending trial, only 24 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 105 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

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

A controversial military coup attempt on July 15 killed over 240 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.

At least 161,751 people were detained or investigated and 50,334 people were arrested in Turkey in the framework of the Turkish government’s massive post-coup witch hunt campaign targeting alleged members of the Gülen movement since the controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016, according to statistics reported by state-run Anadolu news agency by basing on information taken from the officials from Turkey’s Justice Minsitry on June 13. (SCF with June 21, 2017

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