Retrial of RSF Turkey representative: six years of judicial persecution

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Turkish authorities to drop all charges against RSF Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu, who – along with two other human rights advocates – faces a possible 14-year jail sentence for supporting a pro-Kurdish opposition newspaper in a retrial due to start on 14 June.

Erol Onderoglu and his two co-defendants – journalist and writer Ahmet Nesin and human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı – are being retried before an Istanbul assizes court for participating in a campaign of solidarity with the newspaper Özgür Gündem in May 2016. 

This is the 15th time in the past six years that Onderoglu is to appear in court in connection with his role in this solidarity campaign, in an example of full-blown judicial persecution resulting from political interference.

Trial by ruling party judge

At the end of April, Onderoglu’s lawyers requested the dismissal of Murat Bircan, the judge presiding the 13th chamber of the Istanbul assizes court, after news websites published a photo on 25 April showing him with regional leaders of the ruling AKP party and reported that he was an AKP candidate for the city of Samsun in the 2018 parliamentary elections.

The court immediately rejected the request on the grounds that it was “lacking in any basis” and was made “with the aim of gaining time.” Onderoglu’s lawyers quickly appealed to the 14th chamber, as a higher instance, but their appeal was rejected on 26 May.

It was the 13th chamber that, on 25 April, sentenced the philanthropist Osman Kavala to life imprisonment and seven environmentalists to 18 years in prison on charges of “seeking to destabilise the government” in connection with their role in a campaign to protect Istanbul’s Gezi Park against urban development projects.

President intervenes, acquittals overturned

Onderoglu was one of around 50 well-known figures who took turns at symbolically being Özgür Gündem’s “editor for a day” in May 2016, because the daily was the victim of judicial persecution. On the basis of articles published in the newspaper during this solidarity campaign, they were accused of “terrorist propaganda,” “praising a crime or criminal” and “condoning a crime” – charges carrying a possible combined sentence of 14 and a half years in prison under Turkey’s penal code and Terrorism Law No. 3713.

Onderoglu and his co-defendants were acquitted in July 2019 at the end of a trial that was repeatedly adjourned and lasted more than three years. RSF hailed the decision at the time as “an exceptional victory for justice and press freedom in a country where both are being trampled on every day.”

However, their acquittal was overturned in October 2020 by an Istanbul appeal court, which rejected the argument that their editorial roles were purely symbolic and criticised the original assizes court’s decision to handle their cases separately from that of Özgür Gündem editor Inan Kizilkaya, who was tried on similar charges.

The appeal court issued this ruling just one week after President Erdogan publicly accused one of Onderoglu’s co-defendants of being a “terrorist.” As a result, the assizes court restarted the same proceedings against the three defendants in February 2021.

Since then, the court has been awaiting a deposition from Ahmet Nesin, who now resides in France, and witness testimony from Kizilkaya. The trial is finally ready to begin and the prosecutor could present his case tomorrow, on 14 June.

Both a journalist and staunch press freedom advocate, Onderoglu has been RSF’s representative in Turkey since 1996. As a result of his diligence and integrity, he is well known both in Turkey and all over the world and has received several international awards.

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