Turkish court not released 20 jailed journalists despite of witnesses’ contrary statements

A Turkish court has ruled for continuation of imprisonment for 19 journalists despite of the lack of solid evidences and the statements made by witnesses on the contrary before the court on Tuesday.

Twenty-nine journalists, 20 of whom have been remained in 495 days of pre-trial detention, have appeared before the judge for the 5th time in İstanbul’s Silivri Prison. The İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court did not make an eviction at the end of two-day proceedings on Monday and Tuesday. Some witnesses who had testified before the defendants were heard in the case, in which columnists Atilla Taş and Murat Aksoy, who were released by the court pending a trial previously.

The contrary statements consisted of accusations such as ‘ attending a religious meeting, downloading the ByLock mobile phone messaging application and collecting money in favor of the Gülen movement.’ The witnesses who had testified in the hearings either spoke contrary to their previous statements or did not provide any concrete evidence. The court delegation decided not to take into account this situation that went in favor of the witnesses and decided to continue detention of the accused.

The controversial case mainly consists of reporters who were working for the Zaman newspaper and the İpek Media Group. While 6 of the 25 journalists who had been detained 10 days after a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and arrested on July 29, 2016, 6 of them were released on different dates before.

In the meantime, the court persisted in not releasing most of the journalists on the grounds of “the state of evidence” and “allegations of escape” each time, although the court could not present any new evidence to the file. The witnesses in the last hearing were the only new element the court could add to the case. But this possibility was also emptied by the witnesses themselves.

There were statements of some of the defendants, who were put on trial in “FETÖ”[a derogatory term coined by the ruling AKP and Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to refer to the faith-based Gülen movement] cases in different provinces of Turkey, against these jailed journalists.

The related courts sent these statements to the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court where the trial was held. The judge ruled that these people should be heard as ‘witnesses.’ The related witnesses testified on Monday, and four of them connected to the court via the SEGBİS (Audio, Visual and Information System) because they had been arrested in other cases. The rest of them came to the court personally and testified.

Bünyamin Köseli

One of these witnesses has accused the journalist Bünyamin Köseli, who had been released by the court pending trial, of collecting money for the “Fethullahist terrorist organization.” This witness, who testified via the SEGBİS from the İskenderun 1st High Criminal Court, claimed that “I have some knowledge of collecting money, but I have not personally seen him collecting money. I have never seen any crime-related action.” Köseli has rejected the claim.

Then another witness from Kayseri province was testified in the court. The chief judge asked the witness if he knew journalists Ahmet Memiş and Sait Sefa. The witness stated that he worked with these two names but did not witness a situation that would indicate that the defendants are linked to a terrorist organization.

The prosecutor asked the witness about the ByLock, a mobile phone messaging app, which was allegedly first downloaded and then deleted in a mobile phone allegedly found at the house of journalist Ahmet Memiş. The prosecutor, who stated that this phone was registered in the name of witness, and said, “Why was this phone registered on your name in Ahmet Memiş’s hand?” The witness told that he does not have any information on this matter, and said that he had only one phone. Thereupon, the journalist Ahmet Memiş, asked former fellow worker, “I wanted a phone from you for use by the editors on the news site. Is not it that one?” The witness also confirmed this and did not incriminate.

Later on, the court has appealed to the witness Sedat Güven, who connected to the court via the SEGBİS from the Diyarbakır 8th High Criminal Court for his testimony. Güven was asked about his knowledge of Bayram Kaya, a journalist whom he said he knew from his university years. Witness Güven said that they went to a Qur’an course in İstanbul’s Beşiktaş district together in the year of 2006 and they attended in religious meetings in the following years.

According to the Turkish Penal Code, although it is not a crime to the take Qur’an lesson and to attend a religious meeting, the court wanted to take it as an evidence. However, Kaya, in response to this statement, said that he was in England for language education in the years of 2005 and 2006.

The court asked another witness from Karşıyaka district of İzmir province about the accused Muhammet Sait Kulaoğlu. The witness said he knew the journalist Kulaoğlu through his friends and saw him several times during his university years. Beyond that, he can not urge no other claims.

Ahmet Memiş

Later, a journalist who worked in the news site named Haberdar came to the courtroom as a witness. He was asked about the accused Sait Sefa, who is editor of the online news portal. However, this witness also stated that he was there as a news reporter and he did not have any information in another topic. Another employee of Haberdar testified as a witness as well. He was asked about the information regarding Sait Sefa and Ahmet Memiş. The witness told, “It was functioning like other online news outlets. I do not have any more information as to whether or not they are linked over the FETÖ.”

Thus, none of the witnesses could give a concrete evidence against the jailed journalists who are tried on charges of ‘membership of a terrorist organization.’

Afterwards, other accused journalists defended themselves. Ufuk Şanlı, Oğuz Usluer and Seyit Kılıç, prominent journalists who were accused of using ByLock, denounced the accusations by drawing attention to the contradictions between the ByLock records and HTS records in the case file.

Jailed journalist and writer Abdullah Kılıç, reminding the statement of the prosecutor who called TL 1000 in his Bank Asya account as “in need of questioning,” said that “I would put more money if I wanted to help the bank.”

Another journalist, Cuma Ulus, has been accused of having membership in the terrorist organization by depositing money into Bank Asya, which was closed by government under the rule of emergency over its alleged affiliation with the Gülen movement, said that “There was an agreement between my children’s school and this bank. The school’s tuition fee was deposited in this bank. Otherwise I would not have any business with this bank.”

One of the senior fellow journalists, İbrahim Balta, who expressed his health problems in the prison conditions have become a real torture for him  and wanted his release from the court.

Emre Soncan

In his defense, journalist Emre Soncan, a correspondent from the now-closed Zaman daily, said that “When I was arrested with a group of colleagues after the July 15 coup attempt, I thought that the journalism would actually be tried on the court. But as the years passed and I was not asked a single question about the books I wrote and news I made, I am now convinced that journalism was not actually being tried in the court. Despite I should be happy on the behalf of the press freedom, I feel that we are facing a much more serious situation in this case. Unfortunately, the thoughts are tried in this hearing. In other words, in the 21st century after Jesus, your delegation judges thoughts.”

Soncan stated that “In the 1st trial, the chief justice of court asked me if I benefit from the effective remorse law, and I have suffered greatly from dealing with this question because a journalist feels honored, not regretful of being in prison for his thoughts.”

Soncan added that “I, as writer Alper Canıgüz said, live for days and weeks, but I am just spending time. As the nights drift down I sit by the window and watch the sky. I do not expect anymore, I do not think, I’m not angry. I just remember. What do I remember? I remember how you took my life among my hands. And I will never forget that. It has been 500 days. I say ‘enough’, and I demand my release from your delegation.”

Despite the evidence and defenses, the court did not rule for release of jailed journalists. The court also requested a ByLock report for all the defendants and for their spouses. The court also ruled the abolition of the restrictions over defendants’ lawyers. The next hearing of 29 journalists, 20 of them in jail, will be held on February 6, 2018.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the SCF has showed that 257 journalists and media workers are in jails as of December 4, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 231 are arrested pending trial, only 26 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 135 journalists who live 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.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, 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.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15, 2016. Turkey’s Justice Ministry announced on July 13 that 50,510 people have been arrested and 169,013 have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

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