Re-arrest of 21 journalists casts further shadow over independence of Turkish judiciary

The independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary has begun to be questioned once again after an İstanbul court decided to release 21 journalists from jail on Friday but reversed its decision hours later without the journalists being ever freed.

The İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court had ruled for the release of 21 out of 26 journalists who were accused of membership in the faith-based Gülen movement, which has been designated as a terror organization by the Turkish government and accused of orchestrating a failed coup last summer.

The 21 journalists were not released because either a prosecutor objected to the release of some of them or a new investigation was launched into others.

The development has led to huge disappointment among families of the journalists who waited for long hours in front of prisons in İstanbul to be reunited with their loved ones.

Main opposition Republican People Party’s (CHP) deputy Barış Yarkadaş, who commented on the re-arrest of the 21 journalists from his Twitter account on Saturday, wrote: “When the suspects who had been in pre-trial detention for eight months were to be released, heavy pressure was imposed on the judiciary. It is claimed that the Justice Ministry and the HSYK [the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors] took action [for the re-arrest of the journalists] upon a campaign launched on Twitter.”

Yarkadaş was referring to calls from some pro-government figures who from their Twitter accounts condemned the court decision for the release of the journalists and called for their arrest again.

“The prosecutor who asked for the release of the journalists in the morning changed his mind in the evening. The same prosecutor issued a detention warrant for eight of the journalists. What happened in 12 hours to make the prosecutor to change his mind? A real massacre of the law is taking place now,” wrote Yarkadaş.

Another CHP deputy, Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who is also the former head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, also criticized the re-arrest of the 21 journalists from his Twitter account on Saturday.

“Since these people who had been in pre-trial detention for seven months cannot have committed a crime in prison and if there is a criminal accusation against them, then why did prosecutors wait for the day of their release to press charges against them? The journalists’ not being released despite the court decision and the new detention orders issued for them are the most obvious examples of a de facto judicial order,” Tanrıkulu wrote in a series of messages from his Twitter account.

In the meantime, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the re-arrest of the 21 journalists as “devastating,” while it called on Turkish authorities to release all journalists imprisoned for their work and to drop all charges against them, in a message from its Twitter account on Saturday.

Journalists were accused of membership of a hoax terror organization called ‘FETÖ’, a pejorative acronym that Turkey’s political Islamist government has used to smear the civic Gülen movement as a ‘terrorist organization’. Prosecutor Murat Çağlak seeks up to 10 year prison sentence for 28 journalists and a life sentence for journalist Said Sefa.

In the 196 page indictment there is not a single incident of terrorist activity on the part of any of the journalists as they are basically being charged for their articles, news and critical messages on Twitter. Many journalists are allegedly linked with a whistleblower twitter account, Fuat Avni who has about 3 million followers.

The prosecutor also claims working at the critical media outlets which were shut down by the government is sufficient proof to be a member of a terrorist organization. Having an account at private Bank Asya has also been linked with supporting Gülen movement.

Under indictment are the following journalists, most of whom were employees of the Zaman media group, which was considered the flagship media organization of the Gülen movement:

Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has started an awareness campaign for first hearing of jailed 29 journalists and published stories on how the prosecutor cited social media posts by journalists as evidence of crime and terror in the controversial indictment. Ironically these tweets and articles in the indictment had never been subject of any investigation or prosecution until journalists were arrested.

Prosecutor Çağlak’s indictment has also included some articles and social media posts criticizing Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayip Erdoğan and his family members, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab who was accused of bribing Turkish ministers and is currently in jail in the US for violating sanctions against Iran.

Most of the journalists were detained and subsequently arrested in the aftermath of failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The hearings at the court starts on Monday and are expected to continue five consecutive days. Turkey is the worst jailer of journalists in the world. SCF has recently announced the number of journalists behind bars reached to a new record with 200 languishing in Turkish jails, most without a trial and convictions.

Of these journalists, 179 are arrested pending trial and without a conviction. Most of the journalists do not even know what the charges are or what evidence, if any, the government has because the indictments were not filed yet. Also 92 journalists are wanted and 839 have been charged in Turkey.

Although the Gülen movement strongly denies having any role in the putsch, the government accuses it of having masterminded the foiled coup. Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, called for an international investigation into the coup attempt, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Over 135,000 people, including thousands within the military, have been purged due to their real or alleged connection to the Gülen movement since the coup attempt, according to a statement by the labor minister on Jan. 10.

As of March 23, 94,982 people were being held without charge, with an additional 47,128 in pre-trial detention due to their alleged links to the movement. A total of 7,317 academics were purged as well as 4,272 judges and prosecutors, who were dismissed due to alleged involvement in the July 15 coup attempt. (SCF with April 1, 2017

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