Turkish court rules to keep Zaman columnist Ali Ünal in jail

Former Zaman columnist Ali Ünal

A high criminal court in the western Turkish province of Uşak has refused to release Ali Ünal, a theologian and former columnist for the now-closed Zaman daily, who has been behind bars for 23 months.

The fourth hearing in Ünal’s trial was held at the Uşak 2nd High Criminal Court on Wednesday. Ünal, who is incarcerated in a high-security prison in İzmir province, is accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” “establishing and managing an armed terrorist organization” and “being a membership in a terrorist organization” due to his links to the Gülen movement. Ünal faces two consecutive life sentences in addition to a 29-and-a-half-year jail sentence.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Nurettin Veren, an informant who had turned against US-basded Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose views inspired the Gülen movement, was heard as a witness via the IT Voice and Image System (SEGBİS).

In his testimony, Veren accused Ünal of acting on orders from Gülen, being among the brain team of the Gülen movement and serving as a Gülen advisor.

Ünal’s lawyer Ayşe Sueda Ünal objected to Veren’s testifying to the court via SEGBİS, saying that witnesses should be present in court and that defense lawyers should have the right to ask them questions.

In his defense Ünal denied Veren’s claims and accused him of lying. Ünal said he had merely translated four of Gülen’s books and was not his advisor and did not have any secret meetings with Gülen as claimed by Veren. “I am standing trial because of my ideas. I just wrote columns,” said Ünal.

The court ruled for the continuation of Ünal’s pre-trial detention. The trial was adjourned until Sept. 5.

Ünal was arrested in August 2016, and the first hearing of Ünal’s trial was held on Jan. 4 during which Ünal delivered his defense and responded to accusations in the indictment relating to 17 of his columns in the Zaman daily. The journalist denied the charges and asked for his release. The court ruled for the continuation of the imprisonment of the journalist and asked for an examination of his mobile phone.

The Zaman daily, which was affiliated with the Gülen movement, was first unlawfully seized by the Turkish government on March 4, 2016 and then closed down by government decree in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Dozens of Zaman journalists have been jailed on coup charges since the coup attempt.

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 July 9, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 178 were under arrest pending trial while only 61 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 143 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. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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