Şirin Kabakçı (53), who used to be the provincial bureau chief in Konya for the Zaman newspaper, Turkey’s most highly circulated newspaper before the Turkish government’s unlawful takeover and closure of it in 2016, is one of 236 journalists who have been jailed in Turkey.
Kabakçı, who has been behind bars for over 17 months, is among the hundreds of journalists who were arrested in the aftermath of a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, because they used to work for media outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement.
Facing up to 10 years in prison over his alleged links to the Gülen movement, Kabakçı has been charged with membership in an “armed terrorist organization.” Namely, his only crime is his past employment by the Zaman newspaper.
Kabakçı, a father of three, graduated from Ege University’s communications faculty in 1989. He worked as a journalist in various positions for 28 years. His professional activities as provincial bureau chief of the Zaman daily in Konya — ordinary tasks for a journalist in that position — have now been used as the only evidence in a terrorism case opened against him.
His lawyer stated during a hearing in his trial that “Kabakçı was arrested unlawfully by the Konya 3rd Criminal Court of Peace without showing a justification, on May 24, 2017, by leaving the sections of the detention warrant related to ‘the date of the crime’ and ‘the place of the crime’ empty. This situation shows that the prosecutor and the judge who detained and arrested Kabakçı, respectively, did not have sufficient evidence to detain him as well as the arbitrariness of his arrest.”
Kabakçı’s attitude until his detention on May 11, 2017 also eliminates all the suspicions about his possible flight. He summed up this situation during a hearing in court: “When I became unemployed in İstanbul, I immediately moved to my hometown of Bartın. I went to the relevant official departments and reported my new address. Does a person who plans to flee do that? Moreover, my passport was canceled six months after I was arrested. If I were to run, I would have done that when I still had my passport.”
Kabakçı is right. If he was detained at an address about which he had notified official departments when he still had his passport despite the fact that hundreds of his colleagues were arrested, nobody could reasonably claim that he was detained and arrested on fears that he presented a flight risk. Therefore, the judge has shown ‘the deficiencies in his file” as the sole justification for the continuation of his imprisonment.
However, Kabakçı has been held in prison for more 17 months, and it seems impossible to have deficiencies in his file at this point because he has been the sole defendant in the case. Even though there are some deficiencies in his file, that should be deemed the prosecutor’s fault, and the defendant should not be blamed for that.
Moreover, the date and place of the crime allegedly committed by Kabakçı are shown in the indictment as Konya province, but he is being tried in İstanbul because the Konya 7th High Criminal Court decided on October 7, 2017, to transfer his file to İstanbul, in violation of national and international law. According to the law and as part of the principle of the “natural judge,” a defendant should be tried in a court where the alleged crime was committed.
Kabakçı has been charged by the prosecution in connection with his job in Konya province. The witnesses who testified against him are still living in Konya, but he is being tried at the 35th High Criminal Court in İstanbul. So, he can attend the hearings only by means of a video system called SEGBİS. It is a clear violation of the law that the court in Konya, which ruled for the arrest of Kabakçı and left empty the sections of the date and place the crime was allegedly committed, to transfer the file to an İstanbul court.
The violations of the law in Kabakçı’s case are not limited to this. The accusations against him are totally based on the ordinary things that anybody does in his/her daily life. But, as thousands of people were detained, arrested and tried on the pretext of acts that are not criminal, Kabakçı has also faced the same situation. Using a popular mobile phone messaging application called ByLock and canceling a subscription to Digitürk (a digital TV platform) are among the main pretexts.
However, using a messaging application that is used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world and leaving a digital TV platform are not crimes anywhere in the world. There is no such crime in Turkish criminal law, either. However, the Turkish judiciary, which is under the full control of the Justice and Development Party government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invented such crimes and even applied them retroactively.
The more interesting part of his story is that Kabakçı has never used ByLock, and he canceled his Digiturk subscription long before prosecutors claimed it was a criminal offense. Thus, the statements of witnesses and a document showing his registration in the social security system through his employer, the Zaman newspaper, remain in his file.
Turkish authorities believe ByLock is a communication tool among alleged followers of the Gülen movement. Tens of thousands of people, including civil servants, police officers, soldiers, businessmen and even housewives, have either been dismissed or arrested for allegedly using ByLock since the controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
The witnesses stated that Kabakçı was working for Zaman, and the police officers also attached his social security records to his file. Like every registered and tax-paying company, the Zaman newspaper had also reported the list of its staff to the Ministry of Labor and the country’s social security system. Namely, there is no need for witness testimony to understand that Kabakçı worked for Zaman. According to the law, working at a newspaper doesn’t make anybody a terrorist suspect, either. Of course, all this applies under normal conditions in which the rule of law dominates.
Kabakçı expressed his objection to the witness statements in court and said: “The witnesses have only stated that I was the provincial bureau chief of the Zaman newspaper. I don’t deny that, anyway.”
Among the accusations against Kabakçı in his file are travel overseas with delegations including AKP government ministers and deputies and talking on the telephone with his colleagues including journalist Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily. Kabakçı listed in court the international trips he took together with AKP deputies, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan. “I participated in these trips as an assignment by newspaper management. I did not do anything other than journalism during these international trips. The news stories I wrote about these trips were published in the newspaper,” said Kabakçı.
Kabakçı also objected the use of his hundreds of phone calls as evidence of a crime without even knowing their content. “I am not a saint. I could not have known that my ordinary telephone calls before 2013 would be put before me as a crime in 2017.”
Some of the documents that Kabakçı was planning to use in his defense before the court were taken by officers during the SEGBIS connection to the İstanbul court from Konya. Since it is a serious violation of international law and the Turkish Constitution, which both guarantee the right of defense, this move was recorded by his lawyer during the hearing.
Kabakçı’s trial, which has been followed by some journalist organizations, is going to continue with a hearing on October 9, 2018. The Kabakçı case is a prototype for the persecution and prosecution of the hundred thousands of people who were persecuted through the Turkish judiciary following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. His case is also an example of how jailed journalists have been tried in Turkish courts.
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.