Turkish journalist Yazgan sentenced to 9 years in prison based on anonymous letter

Vahit Yazgan, the former bureau chief of the shuttered Zaman daily in Turkey’s western province of İzmir, was sentenced to eight years, nine months in prison on Wednesday based on an anonymous letter alleging that he was a member of a “terrorist organisation.”

The last hearing of Yazgan, a 48-year-old veteran journalist, was held at İzmir’s 4th High Criminal Court. The prosecutor presented as “evidence” Yazgan’s continuing to work for Zaman following a corruption scandal that implicated autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and Cabinet ministers when he was still prime minister, on Dec. 17-25, 2013, and money deposited into Yazgan’s account at private lender Bank Asya, which was closed by government decree over its affiliation with the Gülen movement.

Yazgan defended himself before the court, saying that he is a professional journalist, and demanded his acquittal. However, the court sentenced Yazgan to 10 years, six months in prison over alleged membership in a terrorist organisation. The court later reduced the sentence to eight years, nine months based on his apparent remorse. The court also ruled for the continuation of Yazgan’s imprisonment.

Yazgan has been held in prison since he was detained in August 2016 together with a group of businessmen over their alleged links to the Gülen movement shortly after a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Yazgan was kept in detention for 18 days under abusive conditions, and the authorities failed to advise him of the charges against him and what evidence, if any, the government had.

On August 26, 2016, he was formally arrested by an İzmir court on fabricated charges that he administered an armed terrorist organisation and was put in Buca Kırıklar Prison. The indictment drafted by the public prosecutor months later revealed that an anonymous letter claiming without any evidence that he was a member of a terror organization led to his detention and arrest.

The journalist has also been accused of using a smart phone application known as ByLock, a messaging service similar to WhatsApp, Signal, Skype and Blackberry messenger. Yazgan denied that he has ever used the application, although it was not illegal at the time.

Yazgan has also been charged with having an account at Bank Asya, which was affiliated with the Gülen movement and was one of the three banks with the highest liquidity in Turkey until it was unlawfully taken over by the government on February 4, 2015.

A report published by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has revealed the absurd pretexts used by prosecutors to indict suspects. Judges routinely jail innocent people who are alleged to have been affiliated with the Gülen movement, a civic group that is active in education, community empowerment and interfaith dialogue. The report finds that fundamental legal principles such as “no crime without a law” have been intentionally, widely and systematically violated.

The public prosecutor also presents daily and routine journalistic activities as a crime in the indictment. Yazgan’s meetings with local politicians, officials and businessmen are portrayed as acts of terror. Yazgan has been accused of infiltrating the İzmir branch of a small political party, the Büyük Birlik Partisi (Grand Union Party), which garnered only 0,53 percent of the popular vote in the last general election in 2015.

The prosecutor claimed that Yazgan was leading a Quran study circle for businessmen in İzmir, although such activity is not a crime under the Turkish Penal Code. However, Yazgan strongly denied it, saying: “I am not a religious person at all, I cannot even recite the Quran, the holy book of Islam. How could I give a sermon on religious issues?”

On July 1, 2017 Yazgan appeared before a panel of judges for the first time in the 11 months of his arrest. He denied all charges against him and claimed that the prosecutor had no concrete evidence to substantiate the very serious terror accusations. “I have never used ByLock,” Yazgan said and added, “I had a Bank Asya account because my payroll payment was being deposited at that bank by my employer, the Zaman daily.”

“Before anything else, I am a human being. I have been a journalist for more than 25 years. I am an intellectual who has devoted his life to democracy. I have written numerous news stories that were against military coups. No one has the right to question my patriotism,” Yazgan said at his first hearing when responding to the prosecutor’s allegations that he was involved in attempts to overthrow the government.

“I would not have worked at the Zaman daily if there had been a single judicial ruling that I must not,” he added. Zaman was the highest circulating mainstream daily in Turkey until the government seized it on March 4, 2016 and later shut it down that July.

The court ruled for the continuation of his arrest.

The second hearing was held on September 7, 2017. Yazgan repeated that there was no evidence against him in the indictment. He disputed the cell phone tower relay signals that put him in the company of other suspects along with tens of thousands of people in the area covered by the tower.

“I met many people because of my profession. I am a journalist. Moreover, my mobile phone’s signals must surely coincide with other people’s in the coverage area. That is very normal and does not make any sense,” said Yazgan.

The court again ruled for the continuation of Yazgan’s arrest and decided to ask authorities whether he had used ByLock and the content of the messages. The court also demanded an expert opinion on Yazgan’s Bank Asya account activities.

Yazgan was born in the southern province of Adana in 1969. He graduated from Marmara University’s faculty of communications in 1991. He started his media career at Zaman daily’s Adana office as a reporter. He then became the office’s news chief.

In 2001, he moved to İstanbul when he took a job as deputy local news editor at the Cihan news agency, a sister company of the Zaman daily. He subsequently became local news editor at Zaman.

In 2007 he became the Internet editor, and in 2009 he was appointed as the bureau chief of Zaman in İzmir.

He was the bureau chief until Zaman was unlawfully seized by the government in March 2016. The government-appointed trustees who took over the management in order to turn Zaman into a government propaganda paper closed the local offices and dismissed their entire staff.

Yazgan is married with a son.

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.

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, 2017, the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

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