Turkish court gives aggravated life sentences to prominent journalists

A Turkish court has sentenced six prominent journalists to life in prison over a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, with three of them also sentenced on charges of aiding the Gülen movement, even after Turkey’s top court had ordered the release of one of them.

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.

Mehmet Altan, an economics professor and journalist, and his journalist/novelist brother Ahmet Altan, were charged with giving subliminal messages in a television talk show a day before the abortive coup. Ilıcak, another veteran journalist, was also sentenced to life imprisonment.

Three other defendants, including Yazıcı and Şimşek, were sentenced to life in prison for allegedly trying to abolish the constitution and overthrow the government. The court acquitted advertising company manager Tibet Murat Sanlıman. Sanlıman, who was earlier released on his own recognizance.

The trial of the journalists had resumed on Monday. During the final hearing at the İstanbul 26th High Criminal Court on Friday, the judge gave 10 minutes to each of the defendants to make their final remarks.

All of the suspects requested their acquittal and denied the accusations leveled against them. Ilıcak and Mehmet Altan asked the court to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling last month ordering the release of Altan and another jailed journalist, Şahin Alpay. Ilıcak said her case was similar to that of Mehmet Altan and that she should also be released.

“The Supreme Court and Constitutional Court decisions show that I am innocent,” Ilıcak said in her closing statement. “I ask for you to give your decision in the context of those precedents, and I request my acquittal.”

“I have been tried hundreds of times,” Ahmet Altan said. “I have been tried under military rule, in the Feb. 28 [1997] trials and by the freaks called the State Security Courts (DGM). This is the first time I have faced a court that is carrying out a constitutional crime. As far as I am aware, there is no equivalent in either Ottoman or republican history.”

Turkey’s judiciary is being criticized for acting on orders from autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and not basing their rulings on the law. Judges in Turkey who make decisions that anger Erdoğan are either replaced or jailed.

Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Ilıcak are among 17 defendants accused of membership in the alleged “media arm” of the Gülen movement, which is blamed by the Turkish government for a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

Both Mehmet Altan and Ahmet Altan, who were detained on Sept. 10, 2016, were accused of sending “subliminal” messages regarding the failed coup on a TV show a day before the putsch. The Altan brothers are prominent journalists who have been unequivocally critical of the regime of President Erdoğan.

Harlem Désir, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, reacted to the court decision and tweeted on Friday that “Appalled by today’s court decision to imprison journalists including #NazlıIlıcak, #AhmetAltan & #MehmetAltan, for life in #Turkey! I call on Turkey to reverse today’s decision and release the journalists.”

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF showed that 245 journalists and media workers were in jail as of January 24, 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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