Turkish court releases jailed journalists Bulaç and Özdemir in Zaman daily trial

Veteran columnist and writer Ali Bulaç.

A Turkish court ruled on Friday to release jailed journalists Ali Bulaç and Mehmet Özdemir, who are among 11 former columnists and editors of the now-closed Zaman daily standing trial on various charges.

The court also decided to terminate the house arrest of journalist Şahin Alpay and adjourned the trial until June 7-8, 2018.

The trial of Bulaç and Özdemir along with the other Zaman journalists continued at the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court on Friday. The journalists face charges of violating the Constitution, membership in a terrorist organization, disseminating the propaganda of a terrorist organization and aiding a terrorist organization.

The Zaman daily, which was Turkey’s best-selling newspaper, was closed down along with dozens of other media outlets due to their links to the Gülen movement.

According to Twitter posts from Amnesty International’s activist Milena Buyum on Friday, Özdemir, who used to be managing editor of the Zaman daily, said during the hearing that he had never done any work other than journalism and added: “I have never been involved in any violence. I am accused of being involved in the Dec. 17-25 corruption investigation process. I was not working for the Zaman daily at the time.”

Özdemir said the prosecutor changed his opinion about under which law he should be punished within the last 20 days from a crime against the constitution to leading a terrorist organization, Özdemir said, “This has to be justified in law.”

A prosecutor had filed new charges against four journalists who worked for the Zaman newspaper. According to a report by independent news site P24, an İstanbul prosecutor changed the charges against Zaman night-shift editor İbrahim Karayeğen, Özdemir and columnists Orhan Kemal Cengiz and İhsan Dağı, all of whom were previously accused of membership in a terrorist organization and playing a role in the coup.

Karayeğen and Özdemir, who had previously been accused of “attempting to destroy the constitutional order,” carrying a prison sentence of up to 15 years, are now charged with “leading an armed terrorist group,” which could lead to a sentence of up to 22 years, six months.

“There are other things in this trial I have struggled to understand — the separation of a number of other defendants from the case and the acquittal of some of them at the end of April,” Özdemir said, adding: “I never held the position of director of Zaman. The opinion is wrong on this. I wasn’t determining the editorial policy of the paper. That was the job of the editor-in-chief. The responsible managing editor is responsible under the Press Law for any prosecutions within four months.”

He was referring to the four-month deadline to launch investigations into journalists for their writings under the Turkish Press Law.

Saying that his role at the Zaman newspaper started in July 2015, Özdemir said: “I worked there for nine  months. I was not working for the Zaman daily during the revelation of the corruption probes and their coverage by the paper, some year and a half prior to my employment, in 2013/2014. I cannot be held responsible for articles that were published before I started working there. … In this trial, I have not been told what precisely I am being accused of. The allegations are very serious; yet there is no evidence against me. … I feel I am here by mistake. My presence in this trial makes no sense.”

Asking “How can I be accused of ‘leading a terrorist organization’ when there is no evidence at all in the indictment or the prosecutor’s opinion? Yet I have been imprisoned for 22 months so far,” Özdemir said: “Since I am being accused of leading a terrorist organization, there are some key questions that need answers: When am I supposed to have become its leader? Who put me there? How precisely did I lead the organization? There are many more questions.”

Özdemir concluded that there is no concrete evidence related to the accusations directed at him. “There has to be proof of coercion and violence. No such evidence has been provided,” he said.

Zaman daily Ankara bureau chief Mustafa Ünal also delivered his defense on Friday and said: “I am being prosecuted because I wrote what I thought. God created me as a thinking being. I am not afraid of standing trial. … This is a dark stain on democracy. I never expected this from this government. We were going to be freer.”

Mustafa Ünal

Asked about posting a Quran verse on his personal Twitter account, Ünal said: “Yes, I admit it. I sent this tweet. In fact for years I tweeted it every Friday. My ‘crime’ was repeated. The tweet belongs to me, but its content is from the Quran. Are the imams who repeat this verse every Friday also to face investigation and prosecution?”

Ünal’s tweet reads: “It is certain that God will order justice’… blessed Fridays.” The first part of his post is a verse from the Quran.

“When I was imprisoned in July 2016, I had no doubt about my past, my innocence. After all, there was a party with the word ‘justice’ in its name. I couldn’t begin to think I would be imprisoned for 22 months. What I couldn’t think about has actually happened.

“I don’t believe my right to a fair trial is being respected. My rights as a prisoner were curtailed. I couldn’t read the newspaper of my choice,” Ünal said, and he later responded to each tweet mentioned in the prosecutor’s opinion, reiterating that they reflected his opinions as a journalist based in Ankara. “I cannot understand how criticism can be a subject for prosecution,” he said.

Saying that “the prosecutor makes a serious allegation that I wrote columns upon orders and direction. A journalist is very attached to independence and freedom. Please tell me which sentences were written as a result of an order?” Ünal stated: “I have to be honest. I am not on trial because of my tweets and columns. On the surface, you may be prosecuting me for those, but that is not the reason for my prosecution. I haven’t been imprisoned on a legal basis, and my prosecution is also unlawful.”

“Dear judges, your decision will be difficult. I don’t envy you. If Turkey is a state of law, if the constitution still applies, if you see yourself as part of the judicial system, then you have no choice but to acquit me,” he said.

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 254 journalists and media workers were in jail as of May 8, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 192 were under arrest pending trial while only 62 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 in July 2016.

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