First jail sentence in Kurdish newspaper solidarity trials

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed to see that the Turkish authorities are stepping up their persecution of those who took part in a campaign of solidarity with the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem and that, for the first time, they have imposed an actual prison sentence on a participant, Murat Çelikkan. All previous jail sentences were suspended.

The trial of RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu for participating in the same campaign is meanwhile due to resume on 8 June.

Çelikkan “has not shown enough remorse,” an Istanbul court said on 16 May when it announced that it was sentencing this journalist and human rights activist to 18 months in prison on a charge of “propaganda for a terrorist organization.”

A total of 56 journalists, human rights defenders and intellectuals took part in the solidarity campaign, taking turns at being Özgür Gündem’s “editor for a day” from May to August 2016 because it had been hounded by the justice system. Forty-one of them were charged.

Most of those whose trials are already over have been convicted on the same charge as Çelikkan. They include university academic Beyza Üstün, who was given a suspended 15-month jail sentence on 16 May.

“This is the first time that one of this solidarity campaign’s participants has been sentenced to actual imprisonment and it is extremely disturbing,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“We call for the convictions of Murat Çelikkan and Beyza Üstü to be overturned on appeal and for the withdrawal of all charges against the other participants, who just defended pluralism.”

The articles cited in evidence against Çelikkan, published when he was “editor for a day” on 25 May 2016, were mostly reports on operations by the Turkish security forces in the troubled southeast of the country. One was about a Turkish conscript who deserted and joined the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after an attack on pro-Kurdish activists.

Thirteen of the campaign’s participants have so far been convicted of “propaganda for a terrorist organization” (the PKK) or “publishing its statements.” They have been given suspended sentences that, combined, so far total 11 years and 10 months in prison. They have also been fined a total of 50,000 Turkish lira (13,200 euros).

The suspended sentence of 15 months in prison and fine of 6,000 lira that well-known composer and free speech advocate Şanar Yurdatapan had received was upheld on appeal on 14 April.

When RSF representative Önderoğlu’s trial before the same court as Çelikkan resumes on 8 June, the prosecutor is expected to present his summing-up. If that happens, Önderoğlu’s lawyers will request an adjournment in order to prepare their speech for the defence.

Önderoğlu is being tried along with Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the head of the Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation (TIHV), and the writer Ahmet Nesin. These three are the only ones to have been placed in pre-trial detention for their role in the solidarity campaign. That was last June, when they were held for ten days before being freed conditionally.

They are facing up to 14 and a half years in prison on charges of PKK propaganda, condoning crime and inciting crime.

Turkey is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, between Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sultanate of Brunei. The media freedom situation in Turkey was already worrying but it has become critical since the July 2016 coup attempt. Around 150 media outlets have been closed and more than 100 journalists are currently in prison.

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Updated on 22.05.2017