Jailed veteran journalist İbrahim Karayeğen: Zaman daily has no ties with terrorism

Jailed veteran journalist İbrahim Karayeğen (52), a night-shift editor at Zaman newspaper, one-time Turkey’s largest circulated newspaper before the government unlawful takeover and closure in 2016, said in his court hearing on Thursday that “I have been working for 12 years for the Zaman daily. I was not an executive. However, the newspaper has not had any contact with terrorism for the duration of my duties.”

Karayeğen, who was arrested after a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and has been held in Silivri Prison in İstanbul for over 23 months, started to present his last defence before the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court on Thursday as part of a trial of 31 defendants from Zaman daily.

According to Twitter posts of @P24DavaTakip, Karayeğen said in his defence that “I have been in prison for 23 months. I am being demanded aggravated life for three times in connection with the alleged violation of the Constitution. However, an indictment has to be built on material facts, not on perceptions.

“The words mentioned in the indictment were spoken before everyone. The indictment criminalizes journalistic activities. If you are accusing me of being putschist, you must either have a criminal situation or you must be able to prove my connection with the coup.

“The indictment alleged that the news about the removal of the preparation courses for university exams aimed at overthrowing the government by excessing the limits of the freedom of expression. But the press prosecutor obviously does not agree with this prosecutor. If he was, the news would have been sued within the next four months (because of the time limitation for sueing news in Turkish Penal Code).

“Law does not read intent. From such a point of view, no news can be made. The Constitutional Court said in a recent decision that the courts could not decide how journalists would report.

“Can a person be blamed without a single piece of evidence? I have no connection with any terrorist organization. None of the evidences in the indictment are legal. They are the conjunctural evidence of this period. As this period comes to end, the verdicts given based on these evidence will also be lifted.

“I have been working for 12 years for the Zaman daily. I was not an executive. However, the newspaper has not had any contact with terrorism for the duration of my duties. The Constitutional Court (AYM) and European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) have argued that democracy has risen over the freedom of expression and government criticism can not be described as terrorist activity in their decisions on Şahin Alpay’s case.

“There is a claim that I was caught while I was fleeing abroad. I went to the airport with my legal passport when there was no detention warrant for me. What is the difference between traveling and escaping? How can using a constitutional right to freedom of travel be criminalized?

“Prosecutor says that I have used ByLock (mobile phone messaging application), I did not use ByLock. How can you be so sure when you have a ‘Mor Brain trap’ about ByLock? To be able to use a data as evidence, it must be free from all suspicion. Even in the state of emergency (OHAL), universal principles of law should be applied. I want to be released and acquitted.”

İbrahim Karayeğen, who was detained on July 16, 2016 in İstanbul Atatürk Airport as he was leaving for a vacation, had been left in a solitary cell for six and a half months, his statement to the court exposed the previously unknown and bitter fact. The journalist who appeared for the first time in the court on September 18, 2017 after spending 430 days in pre-trial detention told the terrible saga that he had faced in the Turkish prison.

“He found the opportunity to tell for the first time that he was subjected to a physical violence in places where the closed-circuit cameras did not cover and thrown in a solitary cell for 6,5 months,” Mehveş Evin, a journalist who followed the trial hearing, wrote in an article. She said Karayeğen was overshadowed by other prominent names in the same case where 31 journalists including Mümtaz’er Türköne, Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç and Ahmet Turan Alkan have been tried on charges of terrorism and coup plotting.

Despite the shocking revelations on torture and abuse in police custody and in prison cell, Turkish authorities have not launched any criminal investigation into allegations made by Karayeğen.

Karayeğen disappeared immediately after a failed coup in July last year, promoting his family members and friends to search his whereabouts for days through the authorities. When the family lawyer finally managed to locate him on the eighth day of his missing, they were relieved that he is alive although they did not have any idea about his condition.

His lawyer A.O., who met him for the first time during a testimony in the prosecutor’s office after eight days in police custody, told the account later how he was shocked to see the agony on the face of the journalist and traces of torture and abuse. The journalist almost passed out during the deposition at the prosecutor’s office, apparently from the ill-treatment he received under the police custody. He was formally arrested on July 24, 2016 by an investigating judge at İstanbul No.2 Criminal Court of Peace and sent to notorious Silivri Prison. After a while, the journalist’s lawyer A.O., was also arrested.

His trial by İstanbul’s No.13 High Criminal Court represented the largest ever freedom of press case in Turkey where so many journalists are standing for a trial in a single case that has no evidence of any crime other than published articles by some journalists that are deemed critical of the government.

Karayeğen’s case represented perhaps the most absurd one as he had not written any article for the daily Zaman at all. His job description simply required him to enter last minute breaking news to the late edition or make some changes to already published articles in the earlier editions after consulting chief editor or his deputies at the managing editor positions.

Yet, the prosecutor accused him for writing critically of the government without bothering to point out what published articles, if any, was written by him. In his defence, Karayeğen told the court that he did not even know what he was accused of, let alone being aware of any evidence against him.

“If you look for my name in the indictment, you can only locate at one place where my name was mentioned as suspect along with others. Even there, they cited me wrongly. The prosecutor stated that I was a columnist in Zaman daily. However, I was the editor on a night-shift duty. Now you are going to try me on coup plotting charges with an indictment written by a prosecutor who did not even know what I did in the newspaper and who did not write a single sentence in the indictment explaining what my crime was,” Karayeğen told the judges at the court during his previous defence.

The journalist explained the court that the job description of the night shift editor is merely to complete assignments given by his superiors in the editorial room. He said he had worked as professional journalist even after the daily was seized by the government on March 4, 2016 and continued to perform similar duties under the supervision of the government-appointed caretakers who replaced the corporate and editorial management of the newspaper.

The veteran journalist who spent 27 years in the journalism profession had to defend himself against a ridiculous smear run by the pro-government dailies that accused him of trying to flee the country the day after the failed coup bid of July 15, 2016. This allegation was also included in the additional dossier in the case file by the prosecutor. Karayeğen said he had every right to travel as he neither faced a travel restriction nor had a revoked passport.

“How would it be a crime to exercise my constitutional right to travel with my valid passport through an airport by completing all the legal requirements and purchasing a round-trip flight ticket? Wasn’t my detention at the airport a violation of my constitutional right to travel when there was no notice informing me that my passport cancelled or a travel ban issued against me or a criminal investigation was launched about me?” the journalist asked the court in his defence statement. He said if what he did was a crime, that means thousands of the people who travelled on the same date through the airport must have committed the same crime and must stand trial like he does. He said a fugitive would not dare to use an airport that is the most popular and most closely watched in İstanbul.

Karayeğen was also shaken by the news that the government put his 23-year-old daughter Zeliha Esra Karayeğen in jail on trumped-up charges of membership to a terrorist organization in August 2017. The police detained her on the spot when Zeliha Esra had visited the police station only to get a document required for her job application. Among the evidences for the Zeliha Esra’s arrest are her alleged use of ByLock mobile phone messaging application, her application for passport and the allegation that she deposited money into the now-closed private lender Bank Asya, which was seized by Erdoğan’s regime and was later shut down.

“Many people sought over Gülen links live as fugitives abroad,” the judge said while ruling to arrest Zeliha Esra Karayeğen although she never used the mobile application. Zeliha Esra and her lawyer demanded the opportunity to present a defence against the accusations, but the judge said it was “not necessary” and ruled for her arrest anyway.

ByLock, a smart phone application, is considered by the government as a proof of being a member of the Gülen movement although leading IT experts debunked that assertion after careful analysis of the application and its wide use across the world.

The prosecutor also claimed that a money deposits made by the journalist to the accounts of his children in Bank Asya as criminal evidence. Karayeğen explained that he sold his house in 2014 and deposited some of the proceeds in equal amounts to his children’s accounts to cover their tuitions and education expenses. The bank registry clearly indicated the accounts were opened for his kids yet the court did not take the registry into account either.

Faced with baseless charges, the journalist Karayeğen underlined in his defence statement that he had never harboured an ambition to make his mark in the history but he now realizes that the twists and absurdity in his case will place him in the history of the law. Despite the lack of any evidence of crime against him, the court ordered to keep him jail as the trial continues.

It is common in Turkey for journalists to be investigated and jailed for their work. 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 242 journalists and media workers were in jail as of June 3, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 182 were under arrest pending trial while only 60 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 142 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.

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