Turkish court rules for continuation of journalist Ece Sevim Öztürk’s pretrial imprisonment

A Turkish court ruled for the continuation of the pretrial detention of Ece Sevim Öztürk, an investigative journalist who has been behind bars since June, at her first hearing on Thursday, adjourning the trial until Dec. 11, according to a report by the Evrensel daily.

Öztürk, the editor-in-chief of the Çağdaş Ses news website, was detained on June 8 and arrested on June 20 shortly after the release of a documentary she shot about a failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

Accused of aiding a terrorist organization and disseminating propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organization in six tweets she shared on Twitter and in a documentary titled “The Darkest Day of the Naval Forces: July 15,” Öztürk has appeared before a judge for the first time since she was arrested five months ago.

The first hearing in the trial of Öztürk, who has also been accused of “aiming at creating chaos before the June 24 general election,“ was held at the İstanbul 37th High Criminal Court on Thursday.

Reminding that she is an investigative journalist during her testimony before the court, Öztürk stated that she has been held in solitary confinement at the Bakırköy Prison for Women for five months only because of the news reports she wrote. Referring the spectators in the courtroom, Öztürk said: “I haven’t seen this many people in a long time. That’s why I’m a little confused.”

“I am accused of inciting chaos before June 24 elections. However, I was looking into some aspects of the July 15 coup that had remained unclear for one-and-a-half years, and I was writing a book on it,” Öztürk said and added: “I’m specifically accused of writing about the Marmaris case. I wrote that some evidence related to the assassination attempt against the president [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] was brought before the court. In my news stories about the Marmaris case, I said there was another team in this assassination attempt against the president. My goal was not to discredit the court but to ask for the elimination of the shortcomings.”

Öztürk recalled that a file that was closed in Dalaman case was reopened for five suspects after her news stories about the Marmaris case and said, “The press is the fourth estate, and my news stories have confirmed that.”

Emphasizing that her tweets were within the scope of freedom of expression, Öztürk said: “I prepared the documentary film based on the navy case [related to July 15 coup bid] and its supplementary dossier. The documents are real and official. Is writing news reports and producing a documentary based on official documents a crime?”

“Moreover, when I started preparing these news stories and the documentary, (Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet] Bahçeli had not even called for an early general election. How could I have incited chaos before the election?”

“I was tried in numerous cases against me, and I was acquitted in all of them. It is illogical to blame a journalist for doing her job with honor and pride. I have not committed any crime attributed to me, but I admit to having written all the news stories and tweets. None of them was criminal.”

Öztürk’s lawyer, Efkan Bolaç, condemned the trial as shameful and said: “My client’s only mistake was being curious. Punishment for that is not correct. The judiciary in Turkey is reluctant to enforce the law. In the indictment there is no crime, but they tell Öztürk to prove her innocence.”

Bolaç requested that the court acquit Öztürk and to release her from prison.

However, the prosecutor demanded the continuation of her pretrial imprisonment, claiming that there is a strong suspicion of a crime having been committed and the belief that she poses a flight risk. The court ruled to keep Öztürk in jail and set the next hearing for Dec. 11.

The prosecutor had alleged in his indictment that Öztürk attempted to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the general and presidential elections held in Turkey on June 24 before and after the elections, tried to create social chaos in a bid to reinvigorate the Gülen movement and made efforts to save its jailed members from prison.

The indictment claimed that under the pretext of journalism, Öztürk posted messages on social media about the coup attempt and the coup trials to create a public perception in favor of the coup plotters. Öztürk’s reporting on the coup attracted much attention on social media and was quoted by several news outlets in Turkey.

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 239 journalists and media workers were in jail as of October 31, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 170 were under arrest pending trial while only 69 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.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey have been the subject of legal proceedings in the last two years on charges of membership in the Gülen movement since a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, a Turkish Justice Ministry official told a symposium on July 19, 2018.

“Legal proceedings have been carried out against 445,000 members of this organization,” Turkey’s pro-government Islamist news agency İLKHA quoted Turkish Justice Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Ömer Faruk Aydıner as saying.

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 President 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 about 170,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15, 2016. On December 13, 2017, the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced on April 18, 2018, that the Turkish government had jailed 77,081 people between July 15, 2016, and April 11, 2018, over alleged links to the Gülen movement.

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