Int’l press, human rights bodies slam Turkish court’s ruling of aggravated life sentences for prominent journalists

International press and human rights organisations have slammed a decision rendered by a Turkish court on Friday of aggravated life imprisonment for prominent journalists including Fevzi Yazıcı, Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and media worker Yakup Şimşek.

The İstanbul 26th High Criminal Court, conducting trials in the Silivri Prison Complex, on Friday handed down aggravated life sentences to prominent journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak; two former employees of the now-closed Zaman newspaper, brand marketing manager Yakup Şimşek and art director Fevzi Yazıcı; and former Police Academy lecturer Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül.

Today’s decision to imprison journalists for life without the possibility of parole constitutes an unparalleled level of suppression of dissenting voices in Turkey, Harlem Désir, OSCE representative on freedom of the media, and David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said.

“Concluding the fifth and final hearing of the coup attempt media trial, the İstanbul 26th Heavy Penal Court ruled to punish all six imprisoned defendants, including journalists Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan, with aggravated life sentences for attempting to disrupt constitutional order,” said a joint written statement released by the OSCE and the UN.

“The court decision condemning journalists to aggravated life in prison for their work, without presenting substantial proof of their involvement in the coup attempt or ensuring a fair trial, critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey,” said Kaye.

“The magnitude of these punishments, and the fact that the court failed to implement a related, binding ruling of the Constitutional Court, also raise fundamental questions about the ability of the judiciary to uphold the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression,” Désir said.

Désir was referring to a Constitutional Court decision of January 11, 2018 that ruled to release from pre-trial detention Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay, another well-known journalist held in prison since July 2016, on the grounds that their detention was disproportionate and infringing upon their rights to liberty, freedom of expression and freedom of the media. The representative and the special rapporteur welcomed the ruling, calling it a landmark decision that could positively affect other ongoing trials of jailed journalists in the country. Lower courts, however, declined to implement the Constitutional Court decision, saying that the court had exceeded its authority.

In November 2017, Kaye submitted a third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights on the cases of 10 Turkish journalists currently pending before the court, including Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan, Şahin Alpay and Nazlı Ilıcak.

“We call on Turkey to reverse today’s decision and release the journalists. Imprisonment for journalism not only silences the journalists, but it also deprives Turkish citizens of their right to access pluralistic views on issues that can directly affect their lives,” Désir and Kaye said.

Also on Friday, in response to a Turkish criminal court sentencing six journalists to life imprisonment for alleged involvement in a 2016 coup attempt, Freedom House issued a written statement and slammed the controversial verdicts.

“These appalling verdicts and prison sentences demonstrate that the justice system in Turkey is fully under political control,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House. “Lower courts are refusing to implement Constitutional Court decisions with which the government disagrees, and journalists are being sentenced to life in prison for what amounts to guilt by association. There is no justice where there are no independent courts.”

Turkey is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2018, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2017, and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2017. Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Amnesty International also released a written statement on Friday and slammed the court verdicts. Following the aggravated life sentences handed down to six defendants, including Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek, Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan, for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” Gauri van Gulik, Europe director for Amnesty International, said, “This is a dark day for press freedom and for justice in Turkey and sets a chilling precedent for scores of other journalists facing trials on similar trumped-up terrorism charges.”

“The cruelty of these politically motivated sentences, 30 years in jail with up to 23 hours per day in solitary confinement and no possibility of parole, is clearly intended to instil fear. Imposing such a sentence would not only flout freedom of expression, it would violate the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment,” said the statement.

Amnesty’s statement added that “News of these sentences drained the joy from celebrations for the release of another journalist, Deniz Yücel. He had been in prison for more than a year, without an indictment, much of it in solitary confinement.”

Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), also slammed the verdicts for the journalists in a tweet that said, “With the life sentence for the journalists #AhmetAltan #MehmetAltan & #NazlıIlıcak, the Turkish judiciary and the regime that controls the judges ridicule themselves in front of the world #PressFreedom #Turkey.”

A written statement endorsed by ARTICLE 19, Articolo 21, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, International Press Institute, International Publishers Association, Italian Press Federation, PEN Belgium/Flanders, PEN International, PEN Norway and Reporters Without Borders said, “Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak were today convicted of ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order’ under Article 309 of the Turkish Penal Code and sentenced to aggravated life sentences, or life without parole.”

“These verdicts, the first against journalists accused of being connected to the July 2016 failed coup, set a devastating precedent for the many other journalists and writers in Turkey who are being tried on similarly spurious charges,” said Jennifer Clement, president of PEN International.

ARTICLE 19, PEN International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who have observed the trial since the first hearing in July 2017, found the proceedings to be marred from the outset by profound violations of the defendants’ rights to a fair trial. They initially faced three consecutive life terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, parliament and the constitutional order for their alleged links to a network led by Fethullah Gülen, who the government accuses of orchestrating an attempted coup.

“Crucially, the proceedings in the criminal court have ignored a landmark Turkish Constitutional Court (TCC) decision on Mehmet Altan’s case. The TCC decision of 11 January found that the pre-trial detention of Mehmet Altan for over a year had led to violations of his ‘right to personal liberty and security’ protected under Article 19 of the Turkish Constitution and ‘freedom of expression and the press’ protected under Articles 26 and 28, establishing the way for his immediate release. In violation of Article 315 of the Turkish Constitution, the lower court refused to implement this binding decision of the Constitutional Court and Mehmet Altan has remained in prison,” read the statement.

“Turkey’s justice system is in crisis, and domestic remedies to human rights abuses are not working,” said Thomas Hughes, executive director at ARTICLE 19. “The Altans and Nazlı Ilıcak’s cases were given priority status at the European Court of Human Rights in April 2017. It is urgent that it now takes a decision on these cases.”

The signatories also call on European member states to increase political pressure on Turkey to release the Altans, Nazlı Ilıcak and other journalists detained on groundless charges.

“We know that political pressure works – earlier today the Turkish-German journalist, Deniz Yücel, was released after a year in detention following talks between German Chancellor Merkel and Turkish PM Yıldırım,” said RSF Deputy Director General, Antoine Bernard. “Much more of this pressure is needed. Other countries, and political and financial institutions including the EU need to step up and demonstrate the values they profess to hold in their relations with Turkey.”

“The case against the Altan brothers, Ilıcak, and the others has been politically motivated from the very start,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The verdict sets a frightening precedent for the dozens of cases of other journalists, writers, and government critics currently on trial in Turkey.”

“The United States is troubled by the life sentences handed down to 6 journalists and media employees in Turkey, including Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilıcak,” a US State Department official told the Ahval news website in an email statement.

The US official stated that these are “extraordinary sentences” and “appear to be another example of the Turkish authorities criminalizing journalism under the state of emergency in order to discourage the free expression of viewpoints critical of the government.”

Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament and co-president of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, also released a written statement on Friday and said: “The positive news of Deniz Yücel’s release, which makes me very happy for him and his wife, is overshadowed by the cruel condemnation of six of his Turkish counterparts for lifelong solitary confinement, including Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, and Nazli Ilicak terrible blow to all concerned journalists and all those who face similar unfounded charges and have been imprisoned in Turkey for months and years, my urgent demand to the European Court of Human Rights remains, finally and without further embarrassing delay, these cases of injustice The EU and its Member States need to do much more to influence Turkey, and the EU must be prepared to use economic weight to push for a return to the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

Greg Manifold, design director for The Washington Post, also shared his reactions to the verdict for Fevzi Yazıcı and stated: “This is terrible news out of Turkey. Fevzi Yazici, a journalist, is being sent to prison for life, most in solitary confinement… The aggravated life sentence means they will be in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day, without parole and with limited visits from outside. The panel of judges decided against any good conduct abatement for any of those found guilty. My heart breaks for his wife and children @fevziyazici”

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF showed that 241 journalists and media workers were in jail as of February 16, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison, 205 were under arrest pending trial, while only 35 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 140 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.

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