Turkish journalists charged for terror over comments on US-indicted sanction buster Zarrab

A Turkish public prosecutor who accused 29 journalists on terrorism charges cited articles and Twitter messages on US-indicted gold trader Reza Zarrab, who bribed senior Turkish officials in the largest ever corruption probe in Turkish history, as evidence of terrorism.

In the 196-page farcical indictment filed by public prosecutor Murat Çağlak, journalists were accused of establishing a terror organization, administering it and attempting to topple the government. To support these farcical allegations, the prosecutor not only included critical Tweets and Retweet messages journalists posted on their social media accounts but also published articles on Iranian national Zarrab who is pre-trial detention in New York.


Turkish prosecutor described breaking headline stories on corruption investigations that were published by now-closed national dailies such as Zaman, Taraf, Bugün and pro-government HaberTürk daily as evidence of crime that proves terror connection. These dailies run raft story from headlines a day after police started rounding up graft suspects on Dec.17, 2013 under the orders from İstanbul courts. The headline for Zaman was “The graft operation that shook Turkey” while Taraf run a headline saying “Major Operation.” Bugün daily stated “Shocking Operation” and HaberTürk daily featured the story as “The triple operation kicked off in the dining hall.”

Zarrab generously bribed Turkish ministers in AKP government under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in turn for favors ranging from getting a Turkish citizenship and evading customs for controversial shipments. He was accused of being the ringleader of a shady money-laundering and gold-smuggling network in Turkey that was established to dodge sanctions against Iran, was among 21 people — including the sons of three then-ministers, a district mayor and other high-profile figures — who were arrested as part of the corruption and bribery operation that went public in a series of simultaneous police raids on Dec. 17, 2013.

Investigators have documented how Reza Zarrab distributed $66 million in bribes to the former economy and interior ministers, their sons and possibly to some other bureaucrats to cloak fictitious exports and money laundering. In documents sent by the İstanbul Prosecutor’s Office to Parliament, former ministers Zafer Çağlayan, Muammer Güler and Egemen Bağış are alleged to have accepted bribes. The ministers allegedly flew on Zarrab’s private jet several times.

Erdoğan and his family members were also implicated in the scandal, prompting Erdoğan to hush-up probe and vouch for Zarrab as “philanthropist.” Judges, prosecutors and police officers involved in uncovering Zarrab’s dragnet were later dismissed and arrested on trumped-up charges. However, Zarrab was arrested by FBI in Miami on March 2015 on similar charges of violations Iran sanctions law. Benjamin Brafman, the attorney for Zarrab, reported that his jailed client donated a total amount of $4,6 million to a non-profit group called TOGEM-DER (Social Development Center of Education and Social Solidarity Association), which was founded by Turkey’s First Lady Emine Erdoğan.

Zaman and other dailies followed up on their reporting about the graft case in Turkey, publishing stories such as how police seized $4.5 million cash in a shoe boxes and safes found in suspects’ homes. Turkish prosecutor claimed this investigative reporting was part of orchestrated attempt by a “terror group” to undermine the government. He claimed newspapers were affiliated with what he called “FETÖ”, a name given by Turkey’s autocratic President Erdoğan to smear Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen who has been a vocal critic of Erdoğan on corruption in the government.

Turkish singer and columnist Atilla Taş.


The prosecutor included a column by Atilla Taş, a singer and also an op-ed contributor in Meydan daily, who commented on revelations made by Zarrab’s courier in an interview with Cumhuriyet daily. The article, published on July 20, 2015, detailed how the courier named Adem Karahan revealed Zarrab transported 200 tons of gold from Turkey between 2012 and 2013. Karahan stated that Turkish politicians had a cut of 4 percent from this trade while Zarrab kept another 4 percent. Journalist Taş wrote that these revelations would have rattled any government in any parts of the world, prompting the judiciary into an action. However, he lamented that Zarrab was called as philanthropist by Erdoğan and received an award from a Turkish minister.

Prosecutor Çağlak also included Twitter messages dated Nov.11, 2014 by Atilla Taş, who criticized Erdoğan for hefty utility bill he incurred in his newly built lavish palace in downtown Ankara. The media reported that the palace’s monthly electric bill amounted to TL700,000 which is huge by Turkish standards. Taş recalled that Zarrab gave then-Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan a bribe in the form of a luxury watch worth TL 700,000 and wrote that the palace’s monthly power bill is the same amount as the luxury watch and let Zarrab pay for the utility.

Another Tweet written by Taş on Dec.17, 2014, the first anniversary of the hushed-up graft probe involving Zarrab, was also incorporated into the indictment as evidence of terror. In the message, singer and columnist Taş recalled the court-authorized wiretapped phone conversation between then-Interior Minister Muammer Güler and Zarrab during which the minister tells the gold trader “Brother, be comfortable,” adding, “I swear to God, if there is such an investigation, I will lie down in front of you to shield you,” assuring the businessman not to worry about a possible probe in his shady business dealings. Taş wrote on Twitter that if police come knocking his door, he would utter the same remarks as Interior Minister.

Another Twitter message on Oct.10, 2014 by Taş, who criticized dismissal of police investigators who probed the graft allegations, ironically suggesting that everybody should report police officers who catch thieves, and uncover corruptions.

Investigative journalist Emre Soncan.


Another journalist who is alleged to be a terrorist because he posted critical messages on graft investigation targeting Reza Zarrab is Emre Soncan, who worked as defense specialist in Zaman daily. On Jan.6, 2016, Soncan criticized the derailing of corruption investigations and wrote that “Dec.17-25 graft probes were opportunity for the nation for a re-enlightenment and to rid itself from dirt and evil. Shame that it was wasted.”

When Zarrab was arrested by the US authorities in Miami on similar charges, Soncan said on March 21, 2016 that “I hope people would realize now that prosecutors and police who conducted Dec.17-25 [graft probes] were right.” Next day, he followed up on his message by adding that “Zarrab case is larger than it appears. It is impossible to not link this to Turkey and connect Zarrab’s associations here.” Journalist also predicted that allegations by US Attorney Preet Bharara who indicted Zarrab will exert more pressure on Turkey and this would in turn make Turkish government to be more oppressive. On May 26, 2016, Soncan posted a Tweet saying that “what does it mean to include name of Erdoğan in Zarrab’s case file?”


In addition to Twitter messages, Prosecutor Çağlak included comments made by Soncan in print and broadcast interviews as terror evidence. On Feb.1, 2015, Soncan gave an interview to another journalist, Tuğba Mezararkalı Alperen, during which he said the government had pushed anti-democratic bill through Parliament after exposition of the corruption, distanced itself the rule of law and lost its moral legitimacy. Appearing on HalkTV network on Feb.14, 2015, Soncan made a remark that then-President Abdullah Gül knew the allegations were true and has nothing to do with a coup. But then President Gül did not say that publicly. These two comments also made its way as “evidence of terror” in Turkish prosecutor’s indictment against Soncan and other 28 journalists.

Journalist Murat Aksoy.

Another journalist who got charged for terrorism because of his comments on Zarrab case is Murat Aksoy, who wrote for daily Millet. On Dec.17, 2014, Aksoy wrote in his column that on the anniversary of graft probes Turkey has moved toward more authoritarian style of governance. “The government is bypassing the Parliament and narrowing the political space. The judiciary is becoming a subordinate to ruling party.”

Journalist Yakup Çetin.

Yakup Çetin, a court reporter for Zaman daily, is accused of terrorism because he wrote about the deposition given by Police Chief Yakup Saygılı who overseen the graft probes as the head of Financial Crimes’ Unit in İstanbul Police Department. Although Çetin’s statement was covered in many dailies, for some reason, prosecutor singled out Çetin and his writings in the newspaper. The flashy news from Police Chief Saygılı’s testimony was his request for a forensic examination by a respected international lab on the tape of wiretapped conversation between Erdoğan and his son Bilal on how to stash away the cash on the day graft probes made into public. Saygılı dismissed claims that the tape was doctored.

Politician and journalist Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu.


The prosecutor also charged the National Party (UP) leader and a clomnist for Türk Solu weekly, Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu, over his comments and Twitter messages. Çulhaoğlu wrote on Sept.2, 2014 that “Hey, Reza and Hey, Tayyip:) we call clown as clown and thief as thief.” Interestingly enough, prosecutor Çağlak who claimed this as evidence of “terror” did not fully include the word ‘thief’ in the indictment and instead used “t..” as acronym. This is against the established practice in writing the indictment which should have included the full sentence and the wording if prosecutor claimed that amounted to an offense and considered to be an evidence of a crime.

The same fatal mistake was also done in another Twitter message quoted by the prosecutor and attributed to Çulhaoğlu. The journalist and politician Çulhaoğlu posted a Twitter message on Dec.10, 2014, promoting a book by Ali Özsoy and titled as “There is a thief”. Çulhaoğlu commented that the book about graft probes came out and asked his followers to purchase quickly before government steps in and seizes the copies. Prosecutor Çağlak, again, omitted full wording “thief” in the title and shortened as “t…”.

Same practice is also seen in another message posted on Dec.13, 2014 by Çulhaoğlu who said “We would not call you as dictator if you are not a dictator, would not say murderer if you are not, would not call you as thief if you were not.” The indictment censored words “dictator”, “murderer” and “thief.”

Journalist Habib Güler.


In another case, prosecutor Çağlak included a Twitter message by journalist Habip Güler who merely remembered the death of famous Sufi leader Mawlana Jalaladdin Rumi on the anniversary of his passing that coincided with the Dec.17 graft probes. He cited Rumi’s saying but prosecutor claimed journalists was making reference to graft probes and considered that messages as evidence of terrorism.

Stockholm Center for Freedom, an advocacy group that monitors rights violations in Turkey, issued a report on March 1, 2017, saying that the number of jailed journalist has reached to a new record of 200 with Germany’s Die Welt, Deniz Yücel being among new arrestees.

Of these journalists, 179 are arrested pending trial and without a conviction. Most of the journalists do not even know what the charges are or what evidence, if any, the government has because the indictments were not filed yet. Also, over 180 media outlets have been closed by AKP government last year.

March 3, 2017


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