December 27, 2017

Unfair trials illustrate continuing onslaught on free speech in Turkey

Yesterday and today, the Aachen Peace Award organisation, PEN Belgium/Flanders, PEN International, PEN Turkey and Reporters without Borders (RSF) observed several hearings in the cases of Cumhuriyet daily, the Academics for Peace and the Özgür Gündem solidarity campaign, which took place in Çağlayan court house in Istanbul.

‘These cases, individually and together, illustrate the onslaught on the right to freedom of expression in Turkey,’ said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. ‘We continue to call for the release of all journalists who are in prison for their journalistic activities and for the restoration of pluralism in Turkey.’

On 25 December the Cumhuriyet hearing, scheduled to take place over two days and turn on hearing expert and witness testimonies, was cut short after the judge interrupted Ahmet Şık’s defence statement and expelled him from the courtroom for allegedly disrupting the proceedings, after which defence counsel requested the recusal of the judges.

‘The trial has been characterised by procedural violations throughout. The lack of respect for the right of defence in yesterday’s hearing once again clearly shows the lack of independence and impartiality of the judiciary in the case’, said Laurens Hueting, Europe Programme Coordinator for PEN International.

Cumhuriyet staff are facing criminal charges for allegedly supporting terrorist organisations. The prosecution is based primarily on a misreading of articles that appeared in the newspaper and insignificant contacts between journalists and sources. Murat Sabuncu, investigative reporter Ahmet Şık, executive board president Akın Atalay and accountant Emre İper remain in pre-trial detention, as the case is adjourned to 9 March.

‘Critical journalism is not a crime and is in fact essential in a democracy’, said Vice-President of PEN Belgium/Flanders Isabelle Rossaert. ‘We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Sabuncu, Şık, Atalay and İper and a dismissal of the charges.’

On 26 December, hearings were held in several cases of the Academics for Peace, who are part of a group of more than 1100 academics on trial. They are facing criminal charges for allegedly propagandising for and supporting a terrorist organisation, based on their undersigning of a declaration that calls for peace in the South-East of Turkey. It remains unclear whether also charges based on article 301 of the criminal code, ‘insulting Turkishness’, will be pursued. All cases were adjourned until April in light of the lack of clarity concerning the charges.

‘The state should not hate people for peacefully expressing their opinion. These trials, instituted for calling for peace and dialogue, go against the most basic of democratic and human values,’ said Denis Dion Dreisbusch of the Aachen Peace Award.

Also on 26 December, the case against RSF’s representative in Turkey Erol Önderoğlu, prominent human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı and writer Ahmet Nesin continued. They are being tried on charges of propagandising for a terrorist organisation, condoning crime and inciting crime for their participation in a solidarity campaign in mid-2016 with Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem, which was facing judicial persecution and was eventually forcibly closed in August 2016. In total, 41 people have been or are being prosecuted for their participation in the solidarity campaign with the newspaper. The case was adjourned in light of the absence of Nesin, who lives in exile in France.

‘We call for all on-going prosecutions to be dismissed and for the reversal of convictions in the cases related to Özgür Gündem,’ said Deloire. ‘The censorship of Özgür Gündem and the persecution of their supporters are an unacceptable attack on free media and those who stand up in its support.’