Buried alive: Veteran Turkish editor İbrahim Karayeğen spent over 6 months in solitary confinement

A night-shift editor at Zaman newspaper, one-time Turkey’s largest circulated newspaper before the government unlawful takeover and closure in 2016, has been subjected to torture in prison for months, the court hearing has revealed.

İbrahim Karayeğen, 52-year old veteran journalist who was detained on July 16, 2016 in İstanbul Atatürk Airport as he was leaving for a vacation, had been left in a solitary cell for six and a half months, his statement to the court exposed the previously unknown and bitter fact. The journalist who appeared for the first time in the court on September 18, 2017 after spending 430 days in pre-trial detention told the terrible saga that he had faced in the Turkish prison.

“He found the opportunity to tell for the first time that he was subjected to a physical violence in places where the closed-circuit cameras did not cover and thrown in a solitary cell for 6,5 months,” Mehveş Evin, a journalist who followed the trial hearing, wrote in an article. She said Karayeğen was overshadowed by other prominent names in the same case where 31 journalists including Mümtaz’er Türköne, Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç and Ahmet Turan Alkan have been tried on charges of terrorism and coup plotting.

All the journalists in the case face three aggravated lifetime sentencing plus upto 15 years in jail if they get convicted. Despite the shocking revelations on torture and abuse in police custody and in prison cell, Turkish authorities have not launched any criminal investigation into allegations made by Karayeğen.

Karayeğen disappeared immediately after a failed coup in July last year, promoting his family members and friends to search his whereabouts for days through the authorities. When the family lawyer finally managed to locate him on the eighth day of his missing, they were relieved that he is alive although they did not have any idea about his condition.

His lawyer A.O., who met him for the first time during a testimony in the prosecutor’s office after eight days in police custody, told the account later how he was shocked to see the agony on the face of the journalist and traces of torture and abuse. The journalist almost passed out during the deposition at the prosecutor’s office, apparently from the ill-treatment he received under the police custody. He was formally arrested on July 24, 2016 by an investigating judge at İstanbul No.2 Criminal Court of Peace and sent to notorious Silivri Prison. After a while, the journalist’s lawyer A.O., was also arrested.

His trial by İstanbul’s No.13 High Criminal Court represented the largest ever freedom of press case in Turkey where so many journalists are standing for a trial in a single case that has no evidence of any crime other than published articles by some journalists that are deemed critical of the government. Karayeğen’s case represented perhaps the most absurd one as he had not written any article for the daily Zaman at all. His job description simply required him to enter last minute breaking news to the late edition or make some changes to already published articles in the earlier editions after consulting chief editor or his deputies at the managing editor positions.

Yet, the prosecutor accused him for writing critically of the government without bothering to point out what published articles, if any, was written by him. In his defence, Karayeğen told the court that he did not even know what he was accused of, let alone being aware of any evidence against him.

“If you look for my name in the indictment, you can only locate at one place where my name was mentioned as suspect along with others. Even there, they cited me wrongly. The prosecutor stated that I was a columnist in Zaman daily. However, I was the editor on a night-shift duty. Now you are going to try me on coup plotting charges with an indictment written by a prosecutor who did not even know what I did in the newspaper and who did not write a single sentence in the indictment explaining what my crime was,” Karayeğen told the judges at the court.

The journalist explained the court that the job description of the night shift editor is merely to complete assignments given by his superiors in the editorial room. He said he had worked as professional journalist even after the daily was seized by the government on March 4, 2016 and continued to perform similar duties under the supervision of the government-appointed caretakers who replaced the corporate and editorial management of the newspaper.

The veteran journalist who spent 27 years in the journalism profession had to defend himself against a ridiculous smear run by the pro-government dailies that accused him of trying to flee the country the day after the failed coup bid of July 15, 2016. This allegation was also included in the additional dossier in the case file by the prosecutor. Karayeğen said he had every right to travel as he neither faced a travel restriction nor had a revoked passport.

“How would it be a crime to exercise my constitutional right to travel with my valid passport through an airport by completing all the legal requirements and purchasing a round-trip flight ticket? Wasn’t my detention at the airport a violation of my constitutional right to travel when there was no notice informing me that my passport cancelled or a travel ban issued against me or a criminal investigation was launched about me?” the journalist asked the court in his defence statement. He said if what he did was a crime, that means thousands of the people who travelled on the same date through the airport must have committed the same crime and must stand trial like he does. He said a fugitive would not dare to use an airport that is the most popular and most closely watched in İstanbul.

Karayeğen was also shaken by the news that the government put his 23-year-old daughter Zeliha Esra Karayeğen in jail on trumped-up charges of membership to a terrorist organization in August 2017. The police detained her on the spot when Zeliha Esra had visited the police station only to get a document required for her job application. Among the evidences for the Zeliha Esra’s arrest are her alleged use of ByLock mobile phone messaging application, her application for passport and the allegation that she deposited money into the now-closed private lender Bank Asya, which was seized by Erdoğan’s regime and was later shut down.

“Many people sought over Gülen links live as fugitives abroad,” the judge said while ruling to arrest Zeliha Esra Karayeğen although she never used the mobile application. Zeliha Esra and her lawyer demanded the opportunity to present a defence against the accusations, but the judge said it was “not necessary” and ruled for her arrest anyway.

ByLock, a smart phone application, is considered by the government as a proof of being a member of the Gülen movement although leading IT experts debunked that assertion after careful analysis of the application and its wide use across the world.

The prosecutor also claimed that a money deposits made by the journalist to the accounts of his children in Bank Asya as criminal evidence. Karayeğen explained that he sold his house in 2014 and deposited some of the proceeds in equal amounts to his children’s accounts to cover their tuitions and education expenses. The bank registry clearly indicated the accounts were opened for his kids yet the court did not take the registry into account either.

Faced with baseless charges, the journalist Karayeğen underlined in his defence statement that he had never harboured an ambition to make his mark in the history but he now realizes that the twists and absurdity in his case will place him in the history of the law. Despite the lack of any evidence of crime against him, the court ordered to keep him jail as the trial continues.

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 281 journalists and media workers are now in jails as of September 26, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 256 are arrested pending trial, only 25 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 135 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’s Contemporary Journalists’ Association (ÇGD) recently announced that more than 900 press cards were cancelled.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15 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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