The trial of well-known publisher and journalist Ragip Zarakolu and three other journalists – Songül Karatagna, Kazim Seker and Hasan Özgünes – for their alleged connections with a banned Kurdish organization begins today inside Silivri high security prison on the northern outskirts of Istanbul.
They and 189 other people are going to be tried for alleged membership or links to the outlawed Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which the authorities regard as the urban wing of the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Zarakolu was released conditionally in April after being held for more than five months but 132 of the 193 defendants are currently detained.
“Internationally recognized as a leading defender of human rights and freedom of expression in Turkey, Zarakolu could be returned to prison,” Reporters Without Borders said. “And he will again have to appear in court to explain the courageous positions he takes. This alone says a great deal about the threat that Turkey’s media and civil society are facing, the threat of a return to the past.
“The trial that opens today is highly symbolic. Criminalization of freedom of expression, abuse of pre-trial detention and the anti-terrorism law, and recourse to a special court – the faults of the Turkish judicial system are becoming a caricature of themselves. Using guilt by association and interpreting the law in the most repressive manner possible, the justice system is equating outspoken intellectuals with armed terrorists. All the journalists still in detention must be freed at once and given a fair trial.”
Arrested on 28 October 2011, despite his age, 63, and poor health, Zarakolu was granted a conditional release on 10 April. Karatagna was freed at the same. Implicitly recognizing the weakness of the case against Zarakolu, the court cited “the state of the evidence (...) the time already spent in detention” and “the possibility of the charge changing.” The other two journalists, Seker and Özgünes, are held in Kandira prison, in the northwestern city of Kocaeli.
The founder of the human rights organization IHD, Zarakolu has long been targeted in Turkey for recognizing minority rights and the Armenian genocide and for using his publishing house Belge (which means “document”) to try to push back the boundaries of censorship on these issues.
He used to edit the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem, often writes for the newspaper Günlük Evrensel and chairs the Freedom to Publish Committee of the Turkish Publishers Union (TYB). He has won many international awards and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last February, while in prison.
He is charged with “deliberately helping the (KCK) although it has been established that he is not part of its hierarchy.” Investigators questioned him about his columns for Özgür Gündem and his “too many” trips abroad, but the indictment accuses him above all of attending the opening of the Istanbul Political Academy, which is linked to the pro-Kurdish BDP (a legal party represented in parliament), and giving classes there.
He is facing a possible 15-year jail sentence under articles 220.7 and 314.3 of the criminal code and article 5 of Law 3713, the anti-terrorism law.
Seker and Karatagna, who are the publishers of Özgür Gündem, are facing possible jail terms of 15 and 20 years respectively on a charge of being PKK members, while Özgünes, a columnist for the Kurdish-language daily Azadiya Welat, is accused of being a PKK leader. As evidence for these charges, the indictment above all cites the books found at their homes and their presence at demonstrations or the Istanbul Political Academy.
Many representatives of international associations and media have gone to the prison for the trial, although the presiding judge announced yesterday they would not be allowed to attend. They include Reporters Without Borders correspondent Erol Önderoglu; Bjørn Smith-Simonsen of the International Publishers Association; Alexis Krikorian, the head of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee; Eugene Schoulgin, the vice-president of International PEN; and Sarah Wyatt, the head of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
Hundreds of peoples responded to an appeal from the Freedom for Journalists Campaign (GÖP) to demonstrate on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue on 29 June, chanting “Empty the prisons, freedom for journalists” and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned journalists.
More than 5,000 people have been arrested in major police operations since 2009 for their alleged links to the KCK. They include many lawyers, journalists, unionists and local representatives of the BDP. Around 40 journalists were arrested last December in coordinated raids carried out in several cities.
In a related case, the trial of 37 lawyers detained since last autumn is due to begin on 16 July. Representatives of the Paris bar association plan to attend.
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