The trial of Turkish journalist Hidayet Karaca (55) has already taken its place in judicial history because not only has he been persecuted by the Turkish government led by autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but also both his lawyers and the judges who ruled to release him from jail have been imprisoned.
Hidayet Karaca, Ph.D., is an experienced Turkish broadcaster who also served for years as chairman of the board of directors of a number of media associations such as the Television Broadcasters Association and Television Audience Measurement (TİAK). After serving as bureau chief of the Zaman daily in İzmir and Ankara, he was transferred to the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group in 1999 and was executive director of the group for 17 years.
However, he was taken into custody by police officers who raided the television studio where he was working on December 14, 2014. He has been deprived of his freedom for about four years. Karaca was sentenced to 31 years’ imprisonment in one trial. He is also being tried in another another case on almost identical charges in which the prosecutor has demanded an aggravated life sentence.
“I am defending myself under very difficult circumstances. Some of my lawyers have left, some of them were arrested. I could not even find a lawyer to write a petition for me,” Karaca said during a hearing in August 2016.
As mentioned in his defence before the court, Karaca’s lawyers were arrested. The sentence demanded by a prosecutor for one of these lawyers, who was forced to testify against his client Karaca, was reduced from 10 years, six months to five years, 10 months after the lawyer agreed to cooperate despite the fact that it was contrary to the law. Since the lawyer had to state that they had visited US-based Turkish-Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, Karaca was sentenced to 31 years in prison.
It would be better to take a look at the first of the cases in which Karaca was tried and sentenced. Karaca has described this trial as President Erdoğan’s personal revenge for a corruption investigation on December 17-25, 2013 that implicated himself, his family members and several ministers of his cabinet.
The tragic story of Karaca started with an operation conducted by Turkish anti-terror police teams against an al-Qaeda-linked radical Islamist group in İstanbul on January 22, 2010. Then-Director General for Public Security Oguz Kağan Köksal, who was later elected as a Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy and assigned as the chairperson of the Interior Affairs Commission in Parliament, had ordered this operation. The deputy chairman of the Department of Police Intelligence, Hüseyin Namal, who is also known for his closeness to the AKP, had requested permission for the operation.
An official authorisation request for the operation said, “In order to unravel the Mehmet Doğan Group, which is a pro-al-Qaeda terrorist organization, and to ensure its members are arrested with criminal evidence, in coordination with our directorate …”
Then-İstanbul Governor Muhammer Güler had made a public announcement about the police operation at a press conference in İstanbul. Güler, who was elected as a deputy in the June 12, 2011 elections to the ranks of the ruling AKP and named interior minister, had said, “On January 22, 2010, a police operation was carried out against a terrorist organization with a radical religious stance, namely the al-Qaeda terror organization.”
Güler was not content with an abstract al-Qaeda accusation and shared details of the group, saying that “it was determined that the group is also related to Louai Sakka, who is in charge of al-Qaeda in Europe, Turkey and Syria, and Habip Aktaş, who had previously been involved in bombing incidents on November 15-20, 2003 and was subsequently killed in Iraq.”
Governor Güler argued that the suspects were also connected to the bombers of a synagogue, the British Consulate General and the HSBC building in İstanbul.
Turkish media covered the operation extensively. Yiğit Bulut, President Erdoğan’s chief adviser and a member of the board of directors of the Sovereign Wealth Fund, had made a most striking broadcast about the al-Qaeda linked radical terror gorup on Habertürk television, of which he was in charge. He featured video footage allegedly belonging to suspect Mehmet Doğan, the leader of the Tahşiyeciler group. In the video Doğan was praising al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. He also suggested that Muslims all over the world should recognize the authority of bin Laden. Bulut concluded his coverage about Doğan and Tahsiyeciler by saying that “Islam must be saved from the members of al-Qaeda.”
İstanbul’s 11th High Criminal Court arrested Doğan and other members of the radical Tahşiyeciler group on January 26, 2010.
President Erdoğan, who succeeded in redesigning the entire judiciary to cover up corruption scandals implicating him and his close circle in December 2013, wanted to take revenge by reversing the case opened against the al-Qaeda-linked Tahşiyeciler group. An investigation into the police chiefs who conducted the operation and some media executives who were allegedly affiliated with the Gülen movement was opened in İstanbul. The prosecutor’s office claimed the police officers and journalists conspired against the Tahşiyeciler group without even waiting for the outcome of their trial.
Police detained a number of people on December 14, 2014. Among the detainees were journalists Hidayet Karaca and Ekrem Dumanlı, who was editor-in-chief of the now-closed Zaman daily, which used to be the most highly circulated daily in Turkey. Karaca was arrested by an İstanbul court designed by the Erdoğan regime, Dumanlı was released by the same court in the wake of emotional reactions from the public over the birth of his baby on the same day.
In order to justify this fabricated case, the release of the arrested members of the Tahşiyeciler group was accomplished through heavy pressure on the judiciary. However, the release of these suspects could be achieved only after a year. When the members of Tahşiyeciler were eventually acquitted by the redesigned judiciary on December 15, 2015, Karaca and the police chiefs had already been in prison for over a year.
Despite reports not only by police intelligence but also by the intelligence department of the Chief of General Staff stating that the Tahşiyeciler group was linked to al-Qaeda, all members of the group were acquitted by the court. The police officers who had carried out the operation upon the orders of their superiors, who were put in much more important positions by the AKP, were claimed to be guilty.
Adding media executives to this case was a legal scandal. Yet, despite the harsh coverage by Habertürk, CNN Türk, the Hürriyet daily and other media organs about the Tahşiyeciler investigation and police operation, the executives of these media organs were not even investigated.
The headline of a front page story in Hürriyet on January 26, 2010 was “The former author of the ‘Vakit’ daily is the mastermind of al-Qaeda.” The lead headline of Hürriyet on January 27, 2010 was ‘Sacrifice campaign with Kalashnikovs.” The report said that “a group of 57 al-Qaeda militants collected $130 per sacrifice and sent the money to Afghanistan.”
The Radikal daily reported the event with the headline “Al-Qaeda’s structure was solved in Turkey.” The Star daily used the headline “Al-Qaeda is ready to rob a bank to buy a house.” The Sabah daily said, “They collected money for al-Qaeda under the name of ‘sacrifice donation’” in its January 27, 2010 edition.
In addition to Karaca, Yurt Atayün, the former director of the counterterrorism branch of the İstanbul Police Department, was sentenced to 25 years, six months in prison. The former director of the intelligence branch of the İstanbul Police Department was sentenced to 16 years in prison. The other 23 defendants, who were former police officers in charge of intelligence and terrorism operations at the İstanbul Police Department, received various sentences of nine years in prison and up.
Although it is against the law to be tried twice for the same offense, Karaca is standing trial in another case in an Ankara court on the same charges. Despite the ruling in İstanbul on charges of establishing and managing an armed terrorist organization, the trial at Ankara’s 4th High Criminal Court is still continuing.
Objections to being tried twice for the same offense have not been taken into consideration during Karaca’s trial. Additional charges have been filed for Karaca, who was already sentenced to 31 years, because of two lines in a scene from a TV series broadcast on one of the six TV channels he directed. The new accusation is that he attempted to overthrow the government.
In the second indictment, which was accepted by the court on July 22, 2016, just a week after the controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016, Karaca was accused of attempting to overthrow Turkish government. However, he has been detained since December 14, 2014 and could not even meet with his lawyers. No one can answer the question “How can a person under these conditions organize a military coup?”
Karaca’s prosecution has been an important indicator for Turkey, which is ranked 101st among 113 countries in the Rule of Law Index. Today, Turkey is a country where the number of journalists who are being prosecuted exceeds the total number of journalists being tried in the rest of the world. But Karaca’s case has another peculiarity: Two judges who had ruled for his release were also arrested. The Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) has threatened other judges over giving similar decisions with facing the same consequences.
Journalist Karaca has been tried in a political climate in which he has even been unable to find a lawyer to write a legal petition for him and all the judges have been threatened. Moreover, he has been tried in two separate courts on the same charges. One of the sentences he received is now on the agenda of the Supereme Court of Appeals; the other trial has not yet been concluded. But everyone already knows the likely decision under these circumstances.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 240 journalists and media workers were in jail as of February 22, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison, 205 were under arrest pending trial, while only 35 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 more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.