The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) announced on Tuesday long-awaited judgments on applications filed on behalf of Turkish journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan, who were imprisoned following a failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016.
The Strasbourg court found that there had been a violation of personal liberty and security under Article 5/1 of the European Convention on Human Rights and of freedom of expression under Article 10.
The ECtHR said there was no need to examine separately the complaint under Article 18 of the convention, under which both Altan and Alpay complained that they had been detained for expressing critical opinions about government authorities.
In its judgment on Alpay, the European court also urged Turkey to take necessary measures “to ensure the termination of Mr. Alpay’s pre-trial detention at the earliest possible date” under Article 46 of the convention, which concerns the binding force and execution of ECtHR judgments.
The court did not make a similar call for Altan’s release. In Altan’s application, the court said the period taken into consideration began on September 22, 2016, when he was placed in pre-trial detention, and ended on February 16, 2018, when he was convicted by the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court.
“From that date onwards, his deprivation of liberty has been covered by Article 5 § 1 (a) of the Convention and falls outside the scope of this application,” the court said. Paragraph of Article 5 refers to “the lawful detention of a person after conviction by a competent court.”
IMPRISONED ON COUP CHRAGES
Altan, an economist and a columnist, and Alpay, a former columnist for the shuttered Zaman newspaper, were arrested in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Altan, who was tried along with his brother, Ahmet Altan, journalist Nazlı Ilıcak and others, was handed down an aggravated life sentence on February 16, at the end of his trial, for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”
Seventy-four-year-old Alpay, whose trial on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, the government and Parliament” is still ongoing, was released from Silivri Prison just days before the European court ruling, in the early hours of March 17, after a second ruling by the Constitutional Court against his pre-trial detention. He had been incarcerated as part of the trial for nearly 20 months.
The European Court of Human Rights rulings come in the wake of Constitutional Court decisions on January 11, which similarly found that Alpay and Altan’s rights to individual liberty and security and the freedom of expression had been violated as a result of their pre-trial detention. But the lower courts refused to implement the Constitutional Court rulings, saying the top court overstepped its jurisdiction by examining evidence included in the case file.
On March 16, the Constitutional Court issued a second ruling in Alpay’s case filed after the lower courts refused to release him in line with the first Constitutional Court ruling, this time openly urging the trial court to release Alpay to remedy the violation.
EFFECTIVENESS OF APPLICATIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
In its judgments, the ECtHR also said Altan’s continued pre-trial detention and the fact that Alpay had been kept in pre-trial detention even after the Constitutional Court’s judgment “raised serious doubts as to the effectiveness of the remedy of an individual application to the Constitutional Court in cases concerning pre-trial detention.”
It said it would continue to view individual applications to the Constitutional Court as constituting an effective remedy but indicated it would be monitoring the system to see if Constitutional Court rulings are implemented by penal courts.
“As matters stood, the Court did not intend to depart from its previous finding that the right to lodge an individual application with the Constitutional Court constituted an effective remedy in respect of complaints by persons deprived of their liberty. Nevertheless, it reserved the right to examine the effectiveness of the system of individual applications to the Constitutional Court in cases brought under Article 5 of the Convention, especially in view of any subsequent developments in the case-law of the first-instance courts, in particular the assize courts, regarding the authority of the Constitutional Court’s judgments,” the court said.
The ECtHR has accepted applications from 10 Turkish journalists who were arrested and then placed in pre-trial detention following the 2016 coup attempt.
The court is expected to announce its judgments on the remaining applications soon. The other applicants include Ahmet Altan, Cumhuriyet reporter Ahmet Şık, Cumhuriyet Executive Board Chairman Akın Atalay, former singer and columnist Atilla Taş and veteran journalist Nazlı Ilıcak.
The judges ordered Turkey to pay Altan and Alpay 21,500 euros. Turkish Judge Ergin Ergül issued a partly dissenting opinion to the case, claiming the ECtHR was overstepping national authority.
Meanwhile, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) media freedom representative Harlem Désir said on Tuesday that “[the] decision of the European Court of Human Rights shows clearly that the rights to liberty and security, as well as to freedom of expression of two Turkish journalists, Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan, have been violated.”
“The ruling of the European Court of Human Rights highlights the need for Turkey to revisit the court decisions made in the cases of journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan,” Désir said and added: “I urge Turkey to reverse the decisions that criminalize journalism, release the other remaining imprisoned journalists and dismiss charges against them. I also urge the authorities to engage in reforming the laws affecting media freedom in the country, and I offer the assistance of my Office in this process.”
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 245 journalists and media workers were in jail as of March 20, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 190 were under arrest pending trial while only 55 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 139 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 more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt. (SCF with P24)