Award winning journalist who have worked his way up from being an intern reporter to a senior editor in Turkey’s one-time largest national daily is now facing a three lifetime sentences on trumped-up charges that were brought forward by the Turkish government.
Mehmet Özdemir, 42-year-old journalist, has been locked up behind bars for 14 months now in Turkey’s largest press freedom case where a total of 31 journalists are being accused of coup plotting and being members of a terrorist organization without a single evidence of crime. The 64-page indictment filed against them simply says Özdemir and others have worked for or contributed as op-ed writer to Zaman, one time best-selling daily that was seized by the government in March 2016 and shut down in July 2016.
Özdemir started his journalism career as an intern in Turkey’s eastern province Erzurum in 1997 and had worked as reporter, copy editor, political news editor, first page editor and managing editor in several media outlets. He is best known for writing human interest stories that earned him awards from journalist associations. He loves literature and poetry and even contributed as a writer for a literature web site for a while. His colleagues recall him as true gentleman who worked closely with interns and mentored them.
When the government unlawfully seized his paper Zaman as part of the government campaign to muzzle critical and independent media outlets, he was one of those who got dismissed immediately. Yet he did not give up despite pressure from the government and helped launch a new national daily called Yeni Hayat along with his journalist friends. That was shut down by the government in the aftermath of the controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
He was in Mediterranean resort province Antalya in the south of Turkey when an İstanbul prosecutor secured sweeping detention warrants against dozens of journalists on July 26, 2016 as part of investigation into the coup attempt. When he saw his name on the list of the wanted, he immediately came back to İstanbul on his own and surrendered himself to the police.
While under police custody for a week, Özdemir was subjected to torture and ill-treatment. His abusers even denied him his eye glasses, left him unnourished and prevented him to get new clothes from his family. The journalist formally arrested on August 4, 2016 and sent to notorious Silivri Prison where convicts and felons were incarcerated. Turkish authorities left him there for 419 days without a trial and kept rejecting petitions that challenged the abusive pre-trial detention.
The journalist who appeared for the first time in the court on September 18, 2017 after spending 419 days in pre-trial detention had the chance to tell about the terrible saga that he had faced in the Turkish prison. Yet most Turkish media which is strictly controlled by the did not even carry his defence statements in their pages.
Özdemir told judges at İstanbul’s No.13 High Criminal Court during the trial that “I believe I’m here wrongfully. I’m waiting when I will be told ‘pardon, there was a mistake.’ My name was mentioned in the indictment only once and that is where all the defendants who worked in the newspaper listed at the end. There was no criminal evidence presented.”
Journalist Özdemir made a point that he willingly surrendered himself to the police when he heard news about detention warrants and has no plans to flee the country. “I have twins who just started the school this year. I was dreaming to take them to their school,” he said as he appealed his release from pre-trial detention.
Özdemir is married with a journalist and they have three kids. He stressed that that is no evidence of any crime in the indictment as well as in the evidentiary dossier and asked for the acquittal. He said he had done nothing wrong except working in the journalism field for years and strongly denied charges of terrorism and coup plotting against the government.
Yet, the court decided to keep him locked up while the trial is ongoing. He will be kept away from his journalist wife and three kids
The next hearing is scheduled to be held in December 2017. If he gets convicted on trumped up charges, he will be sentenced to three aggravated life time imprisonment plus an additional 15 years according to the indictment.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has showed that 280 journalists and media workers are now in jails as of September 30, 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 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.