Turkish court sentences journalist Ali Ünal to 19,5 years in prison over alleged Gülen links

Former Zaman columnist Ali Ünal

A high criminal court in the western Turkish province of Uşak acquitted Ali Ünal, a theologian and former columnist for the now-closed Zaman daily, on the charge of alleged involvement in a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016, but sentenced him to 19 years, six months in prison over alleged links to the Gülen movement.

The last hearing in Ünal’s trial was held at the Uşak 2nd High Criminal Court on Wednesday. The court presented 17 of Ünal’s articles published in the Zaman daily as evidence for the charge of “leading a terrorist organization.”

Ünal, who used to be critical of the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been behind bars for about 28 months in a high-security prison in İzmir province. President Erdoğan has also been among the plaintiffs against Ünal.

Ünal was accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” “establishing and managing an armed terrorist organization” and “membership in a terrorist organization” due to his links to the Gülen movement. Ünal faced two consecutive life sentences in addition to a 29-and-a-half-year jail sentence.

Ünal was arrested in August 2016, and the first hearing of his trial was held on Jan. 4, 2018, during which Ünal delivered his defense and responded to accusations in the indictment relating to 17 of his columns in the Zaman daily.

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 in July 2016. Dozens of Zaman journalists have been jailed on coup charges since the abortive putsch.

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 the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

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