Employees of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet are being tried on charges including the alleged support of “terrorist organizations.” The case is seen as a indicator of the state of the Turkish justice system.
The Cumhuriyet journalists may be looking at very long jail sentences. The defendants, whose trial began on Monday, could get between seven-and-a-half and 43 years in prison. What exactly they are charged with, however, remains unclear.
The group includes some of the best known names in Turkish media, such as the Kadri Gursel, the paper’s chief editor Murat Sabuncu, cartoonist Musa Kart, and investigative reporter Ahmet Sik.
According to the prosecutors, the 19 reporters are on trial for “aiding an armed terrorist group without being mebers of it.” Two of these groups are named: the movement around the preacher Fethullah Gulen, and the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. Critics slammed the accusations as vague.
“Kadri Gursel […] is one of the country’s leading writers and opinion-formers,” DW’s Dorian Jones from said on Monday Istanbul. “He wrote a column for a very prominent newspaper and was ousted because of a tweet the president (Erdogan) didn’t like.”
“He is accused of not only supporting the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which has kidnapped him two decades ago, but on top of that he is also accused of supporting the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is a person Kadri Gursel has written expansively about, exposing and criticizing for many years,” Jones told DW News.
The first week of the group trial is likely to be taken up by prosecutors reading out the indictment and defense lawyers giving their opening statements. At the end of this segment, however, the judges will decide whether to release some of the defendants on bail. Twelve of the reporters are currently in jail, five have already been released from custody pending the outcome of the trial, and the last two, including Cumhuriyet former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, are being tried in absentia. Dundar is currently in Germany.
The case of Ahmet Sik gives some indication of the sort of thing the public prosecutor’s office deems to be such an offense. Sik, an investigative journalist, was arrested at the end of December 2016. The public prosecutor referenced posts on his Twitter account as grounds for the arrest. Anadolu reported that the investigation was based on claims that Sik was “denigrating the Republic of Turkey, its judicial bodies, military and security organization” and “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” in his Twitter postings and in some articles he had published in the Cumhuriyet daily.
Sik went after Gulen at wrong time
What Ahmed Sik did was primarily to ask questions and highlight inconsistencies in government propaganda. For example, in some of his tweets he considered the case of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov. Karlov was shot on 19 November, 2016, by a former policeman with jihadi motives. The government says the gunman was a follower of the Gulen movement. In that case, Sik asked on Twitter, how did they explain the fact that the assassin was a police officer?
Sik also addressed the arrest of the actor, director and politician Sırrı Sureyya Onder, who represented the pro-Kurdish opposition HDP in the Turkish parliament. Together with former deputy prime minister of Turkey, Yalcin Akdogan, Onder published a statement proposing a possible solution for the Kurdish conflict. The member of parliament was then arrested and charged with supporting a terrorist organization. Sik’s conclusion: “If the action which [Peoples’ Democratic Party MP] Sırrı Sureyya Onder is being charged with is a crime, isn’t there supposed to be a bunch of suspects, starting with those sitting in the [Presidential] Palace?”
Sik had already spent a year in prison in 2011 and 2012. Back then, his crime was to criticize the Gulen movement’s influence within the apparatus of state – precisely what Erdogan is doing today. The only difference is that, at that time, Erdogan and Gulen were still the best of friends.