Turkish court sentences jailed journalist Soncan without allowing him access to evidence

Jailed journalist Emre Soncan was detained just after the controversial coup on July 15, 2016.

A Turkish court on April 10 handed down a prison sentence of seven-and-a-half years on terror charges to journalist Emre Soncan (36), who is among dozens of journalists jailed in the aftermath of a controversial military coup attempt in on July 15, 2016, without allowing him to see the documents used as evidence for his sentence.

Soncan, who has been in pretrial detention for 627 days in Silivri Prison in İstanbul, was convicted of membership in a terrorist organization. However, the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) was told that the verdict in Soncan’s case was made without giving him the relevant documents required for his defence before the court. Therefore, the young journalist refused to present his defence at the final hearing  due to the fact that the documents he requested were withheld from him.

The last hearing in   Soncan’s trial was held on April 10 at the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court, which Soncan attended via IT Voice and Image System (SEGBİS) from Silivri Prison, where he has been jailed for almost two years.

Soncan used to work for Turkey’s once-best-selling Zaman daily, which was closed down by the Turkish government in the aftermath of the controversial coup attempt due to its links to the Gülen movement. Soncan mainly covered defense issues and the president’s office.

The journalist was detained 10 days after the coup attempt and was arrested along with 21 other journalists in the same investigation on July 29, 2016. With additional arrests the number rose to 27, and a case was launched against them and two journalists at large. The trial at the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court was concluded on March 8.

The court handed down prison sentences ranging from 25 months to seven years, six months to the 25 journalists on terror charges. The journalists, some of whom used to work for media outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement, are alleged to be followers of the movement.

Toward the end of the trial in which Soncan was charged with membership in a terrorist organization and was awaiting a verdict following his 20-month stay in prison, the judge decided to separate his dossier from the others, saying that there was a new case against him and that he would be tried in new proceedings. “There is a new indictment for you. We merged the file. You will no longer be judged in this trial, but according to the other indictment. ”

In the new indictment dated Feb. 5, 2018 and accepted by the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court, Soncan was accused of establishing and running a terrorist organization. The reason for the new trial was allegedly because of Soncan’s remarks about the Gülen movement in the first hearing of his initial trial. He said he does not see the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization in the March 29, 2017 hearing when asked about one of his Twitter messages. In one of the tweets he posted following the coup attempt, the journalist wrote: “I don’t know whether I will be detained for posting this tweet, but I don’t find the claim suggesting that the Gülen movement was behind this cowardly junta to be sensible.”

However, the only accusation in the new indictment about him was his alleged use of the ByLock mobile phone messaging application. He was accused of having downloaded the application to a phone belonging to his relative M.A.

Turkish authorities believe ByLock is a communication tool among followers of the Gülen movement. Tens of thousands of people, including civil servants, police officers, soldiers, businessmen and even housewives, have either been dismissed or arrested for using ByLock since the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The first hearing of the new trial was held on March 15, 2018 at the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court. Soncan, who attended the hearing alone, denied the accusations. The court, which had decided to withdraw its accusation of managing an armed terrorist organisation, had announced it would decide on the file on April 10 on charges of membership in a terrorist organisation.

Soncan repeatedly wrote to the court and demanded documents related to the allegations of ByLock use. He stated that he would make his defence according to the accusations and the evidence. But none of his requests were answered despite the fact that it was the only accusation leveled against him. So Soncan, who was present at the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court for the verdict, refused to give his final defence before the court. “I asked for the documents that I required to use for my defence, but you refused to give them to me. My right to a defence has been restricted. Therefore, I refuse to make a defence under these conditions,” said Soncan.

The judge reportedly insisted that he make his final defence, reiterating that the documents would not be given to him. But Soncan refused. Eventually, Soncan was sentenced to seven years, six months without presenting his last defence before the court.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 256 journalists and media workers were in jailas of April 11, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 197 were under arrest pending trial while only 58 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 about 200 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

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 more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and other civil servants since July 2016. Turkey’s interior minister announced on December 12, 2017 that 55,665 people have been arrested. On December 13, the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

A total of 48,305 people were arrested by courts across Turkey in 2017 over their alleged links to the Gülen movement, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on Dec. 2, 2017. “The number of detentions is nearly three times higher,” Soylu told a security meeting in İstanbul and claimed that “even these figures are not enough to reveal the severity of the issue.”

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