Turkish appeals court upholds prison sentences given to 26 journalists over alleged Gülen links

The 2nd Criminal Chamber of the İstanbul Regional Court of Justice has upheld the conviction of 26 journalists, including 19 currently in jail, who used to work for media groups closed down by the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over their alleged affiliation with the Gülen movement in the aftermath of a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The court ruled on appeals of a ruling handed down by the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court on March 8, 2018, for the 26 journalists.

The 2nd Criminal Chamber stated in its ruling that defendants Cihan Acar, Bünyamin Köseli, İbrahim Balta, Bayram Kaya, Cemal Azmi Kalyoncu, Habip Güler, Hanım Büşra Erdal, Mutlu Çölgeçen, Ünal Tanık, Yakup Çetin, Seyit Kılıç, Hüseyin Aydın, Abdullah Kılıç and Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu, who were given six years, three months for alleged membership in an “armed terrorist organization,” and Ahmet Memiş, Ali Akkuş, Muhammet Sait Kuloğlu, Mustafa Erkan Acar, Oğuz Usluer, Davut Aydın, Ufuk Şanlı, Yetkin Yıldız and Cuma Ulus, who were given seven years, six months on similar charges, had appealed the lower court decision.

The İstanbul Regional Court of Justice’s 2nd Criminal Chamber rejected the appeals of the 26 journalists, stating that the local court ruling complied with the relevant laws and trial procedures.

In its decision, the chamber also rejected the appeals of prosecutors against court decisions for columnist and singer Atilla Taş, who was given three years, one month and 15 days for an alleged crime of “intentionally and willingly assisting an organization without being part of its hierarchical structure” and for journalist Murat Aksoy, who was given two years, one month.

The court in addition ruled for a continuation of the imprisonment of the 19 journalists, upholding the sentences handed down to all 25 defendants and the acquittal of journalist Muhterem Tanık.

As a result of the unanimous decision of the 2nd Criminal Chamber, the decision to jail Atilla Taş and Murat Aksoy was also upheld. The 24 other defendants will be able to appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeals.

The İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court on March 8, 2018, handed down prison sentences ranging from 25 months to seven years, six months to the 25 journalists on charges of terrorism. There were 29 defendants in the trial, 19 of whom were in pretrial detention.

The court decided on seven years, six month sentences for journalists Ahmet Memiş, Ali Akkuş, Muhammed Sait Kuloğlu, Mustafa Erkan Acar, Oğuz Usluer, Ufuk Şanlı, Yetkin Yıldız, Cuma Ulus, Mutlu Çölgeçen, Ünal Tanık, Seyid Kılıç and Davut Aydın on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.

The court also ruled for the re-arrest of journalist Akkuş, who was released last April. Journalists Abdullah Kılıç, Cihan Acar, Bünyamin Köseli, Cemal Azmi Kalyoncu, Halil İbrahim Balta, Bayram Kaya, Habip Güler, Hanım Büşra Erdal, Yakup Çetin, Hüseyin Aydın and Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu were given six years, three months on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.

Journalist and singer Atilla Taş, who was released from prison last October after spending 14 months in jail, was given a sentence of three years, one-and-a-half months on charges of deliberately aiding a terrorist organization, while journalist Murat Aksoy, who was also released along with Taş last October after spending 421 days in jail, was given two years, one month in prison on charges of deliberately aiding a terrorist organization.

The court rejected the prosecutor’s request for the re-arrest of Taş and Aksoy and removed the obligation to sign in at a police station regularly yet ruled for the continuation of their travel ban.

Only one journalist, Muhterem Tanık, was acquitted in the trial. She is the wife of journalist Ünal Tanık. Journalists Bülent Ceyhan and Said Sefa, who were among the defendants of the trial are at large; hence, their files have been separated from the others. The file of journalist Emre Soncan had earlier been separated from this trial.

The court acquitted 13 journalists of charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and attempting to destroy the Republic of Turkey.

Following the July 15 coup attempt, the Turkish government designated the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization in a development that many say was politically motivated. Working at a Gülen-linked media organization, depositing money in the Gülen-linked Bank Asya or even downloading the mobile phone application ByLock, which is the top communication tool among the Gülen followers according to Turkish authorities, are all seen as signs of being a member of a terror organization.

Zaman, which was Turkey’s best-selling newspaper, was taken over by the government in March 2016 and then closed down in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt. Zaman angered the government with its critical stance and extensive coverage of a corruption scandal that erupted in late 2013.

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 237 journalists and media workers were in jail as of October 7, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 169 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 148 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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