Detention of Turkish columnist arbitrary; writing columns, books cannot justify detention, says UN working group 

Journalist Ali Ünal

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has concluded that the arrest and detention of Ali Ünal, a theologian and former columnist for the now-closed Zaman daily, were arbitrary.

“The fact that the Mr. Ünal wrote columns, appeared on television and wrote two books related to the Gülen movement cannot justify his pretrial detention,” WGAD said.

WGAD urged the Turkish government to ensure a full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the detention and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights.

In 2018 a high criminal court in the western Turkish province of Uşak sentenced Ünal to 19 and a half years in prison over his alleged links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based group accused by the government of “terrorist” activities. 

Ünal was arrested in August 2016, and the first hearing of his trial was held on January 4, 2018, during which Ünal delivered his defense and responded to accusations in the indictment.

He was accused of working as a columnist at the Zaman daily for several years, appearing on a program aired on Samanyolu TV, giving an interview to Bugün TV in front of the Istanbul courthouse concerning executives of media outlets against whom legal proceedings had been launched, writing two books and being linked to the movement. 

Many people in Turkey tried to get rid of books written by Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, after the government started to use them as evidence of membership in a terrorist organization, part of a massive witch-hunt.

In July 2016 Samanyolu TV’s license was revoked, and the network was shut down altogether due to alleged links to the movement.

The Zaman daily, which was affiliated with the Gülen movement, was first unlawfully seized by the Turkish government on March 4, 2016, and then closed down by government decree in the aftermath of a failed coup in July 2016. Dozens of Zaman journalists have been jailed on coup charges since the abortive putsch.

“It expresses grave concern about the pattern that all these cases follow and recalls that, under certain circumstances, widespread or systematic imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law may constitute crimes against humanity,” the UN working group said.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following an abortive putsch that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

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