Jailed journalist Soncan: ‘A nation could never be free if its journalists are behind bars’

Jailed journalist Emre Soncan was detained just after the controversial coup on July 15, 2016.
A jailed Turkish journalist presented an impressive defense to the court, saying that the history will judge Turkey on rights violations and declared a nation could never be free as long as its journalists are languishing behind bars on absurd charges.

Zaman Daily’s reporter Emre Soncan (35) was one of the 26 arrested journalists who appeared last week before the judge for the first time after serving 8 months in Silivri Prison of İstanbul.

Stockholm Center for Freedom(SCF) has acquired the text of his defense which reads “Socrates saved his honor in exchange of his life and I am saving the honor of freedom of press in exchange of being jailed unlawfully for 241 days.”

In today’s Turkey, it is difficult to access court records of proceedings due to the state of emergency regulations and the climate of fear that prevents lawyers and suspects from disclosing information in an effort to protect themselves. Apart from a few senior journalists who were present in the courtroom to show solidarity with their arrested colleagues and shared some of their notes through social media, no court reporter followed the hearings that lasted 5 days, and no major media outlet reported the proceedings.

‘STANDING BEFORE YOU IS NOT A TERRORIST BUT A JOURNALIST’

“Standing before you is not a terrorist but a journalist who has never been involved in a slightest act of terror, violence, hate or evil throughout his life, I am a man of intellect,” said Soncan who highlighted the importance of the press freedom and freedom of the expression during his testimony.

Soncan started his defense by asking the panel of judges in the court if they had ever wanted to die? “I had on that night [on the day of his formal arrest which was on July 29, 2016],” he said: “After being locked up with 13 other people in a holding cell that was designed for only 3 in the police station and following the terrible ordeal — for which I would not delve into details now — we went through on the first night during the transfer of me and my colleagues to the prison where we were isolated in a temporary cells called ‘quarantine’, I got into the bed.”

Soncan went on saying “at the age of 35 for which Dante calls it as the half of a life in his Divine Comedy, I prayed Allah to take my life right there on that night and not let me see the sunrise the next morning. I started contemplating that this world may be a hellhole for another planet. However, when I woke up in the morning, I came to realize that every sunrise brought a new hope and a fresh struggle and there was no room for a despair in one’s life. Hence, without giving up on a hope, I came here to your court to defend my ideas until justice is served.”

“I am sure of one thing, sooner or later, I will be acquitted and history will bear witness to it,” Soncan said, adding to that “I have always stood for democracy, freedom and justice.” He made clear that he was not a member of any illegal organization, religious community or an ideological group other than being a member of a professional organization Journalists’ Association of Turkey which he now regrets. He accused Journalist Association of Turkey of not providing adequate support for the jailed journalists.

‘BEING A MEMBER OF A TERRORIST ORGANIZATION WITHOUT A SINGLE EVIDENCE OF VIOLENCE’

Soncan also explained about the mistreatment of detainees in prison: “I was arrested for being a member of a terrorist organization without a single evidence of violence or physical coercion. They applied restrictions on my visitors, right to call family members, right to access an attorney, and bring books to the prison. There was a small opening to the sky in the courtyard. Even that was a too much luxury for us and they covered our sky with a fence just like the wall of shame that divided between West Germany and East Germany. Just so that we could not embrace the clouds, could not touch planes flying overhead in the sky. 241 days went by like this and I now finally found a chance to defend myself.”

In his testimony, Soncan recalled the famous British jurist and constitutional theorist Albert Venn Dicey who developed the concept of the rule of law. He reminded the court how Dicey said in his famous book, ‘Introduction to The Study Of Constitutional Law’ that no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer except for a breach of law. This indictment is far behind the 19th century’s jurisprudence, Soncan claimed. He also criticized prosecutor Murat Çağlak who prepared the indictment against him and his colleagues, labeling his writings and thoughts as crime. “Thoughts are bullet proof and cannot fit into the confines of jail cells. Thoughts are always on the run. This is what Prosecutor is forgetting,” Soncan remarked.

There are basically three accusations leveled against Soncan in the indictment. First one is defamation of Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an interview on a daily and during a news program on an independent TV network while commenting on his new book. Second accusation is about his social media posts and finally, his savings account at Bank Asya amounting to $8,637.

Soncan said his legitimate criticism of President Erdoğan did not incite a violence and did not include any element of insult or hate speech. “I was not even sued then for these remarks and they were not subject to any criminal investigation. No call for a correction was made either,” he said, stressing that Turkish constitution protects the freedom of the speech.

Turkish journalist also highlighted the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) which stated that freedom of expression as an essential foundation of a democratic society and applicable to even information and ideas that may be shocking, disturbing or deemed offensive. He said he has never advocated a violence, opposed to hate speech, and dared the prosecutor to present any evidence that may be considered to be promoting a violence or terror.

‘IT FEELS LIKE THIS IS GOING TO GO ON FOREVER’

Drawing an example from the Myth of Sisyphus, a 1942 philosophical essay written by Albert Camus, Turkish journalist said he has been trying to defend himself against absurd allegations just like Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again, which was the basis for Camus’ philosophy of the absurd. He said he has been challenging his arrest decision every months since he was put in a jail, only to see that it was rejected on the same pretexts. “It feels like this is going to go on forever,” he lamented.

Soncan emphasized that the flight risk is not valid for his pre-trial detention, saying that he turned himself in voluntarily even though rumors about his pending arrests were circulated in social media with his name on the list of those who would be arrested. “I had valid visas for many countries and could have easily fled the country,” he said, adding that he surrendered to the police after he learned that a detention warrant was issued against him. He also questioned the court’s reasoning that there were other suspects who remain at large, saying that a collective punishment goes against the individual responsibility for a crime. “My pre-trial detention is not a justified measure but turned into a tool for punishment,” he underlined.

Responding to the accusation of depositing money in a Bank Asya account, which Prosecutor claims is funding terror, Soncan told the court  “I have an account at Bank Asya as my paper Zaman daily was depositing our salary payments in that bank. Before that I had a Vakıfbank (owned by the state) account before, since my paper was depositing my payroll at that bank then.” He also explained the fund of $8,637 in his bank account, saying that he had TL20,000 (about 5500 dollars) in his savings in 2013. That became TL31,400 ($8,367) in 2015. “I withdrew it to buy a car. The court can see the transactions,” he said.

“I don’t understand how depositing money into a bank which is legal and operates under supervision of the State could be a crime!” he asked.

‘YOU’LL ACTUALLY PUNISH AN IMAGINARY PERSON IN THE MIND OF THE PROSECUTOR’

An important detail was revealed in Soncan’s court testimony defense. It turned out prosecutor Çağlak never questioned him before his formal arrest. Soncan said “I have never met him [Çağlak]. He did not even bother taking my testimony. If you send me to the jail again, you’ll actually punish an imaginary person in the mind of this prosecutor.”

In final part of his defense, Soncan responded to Twitter messages that were put in the indictment as evidence of terror. Soncan submitted his posts on the date of the failed coup for court’s review, in which he wrote that standing with the elected government was a duty for democracy and he was strongly against the coup. “As for my other messages that included no criminal expression, they should be judged under freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution,” said Soncan.

In his final words, Emre Soncan told the court “If putting journalists behind bars would have made Turkey a better country, I would have happily gone along with being jailed. However a nation could never be free if its journalists are behind bars.”

The court hearings that started on March 27, ended on March 31. The prosecutor demanded the release of 13 journalists but not Soncan. On a surprising move the court decided to release 21 journalists and the continuation of arrest of 5 journalists including Soncan.

However, a few hours after the decision, Turkish prosecutors launched a new investigation into 13 of 21 journalists. The prosecutor’s objection to the release of the remaining 8 journalists was also concurrently accepted by the court. Thus, none of these 21 journalists have been freed.  Families and loved ones waiting  outside the Silivri Prison broke down in tears and returned home devastated.

April 7, 2017

 

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