In February 2017, I wrote here about Ahmet Şık, a Turkish investigative journalist who had recently been arrested at his home in Istanbul. Şık is well known for his courageous reporting in the opposition daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. He was accused of producing terrorist propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and FETO, the government’s name for the Gülen movement, which President Erdoğan blames for the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Şık was also charged under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for ‘publicly denigrating the Republic of Turkey, its judiciary, military and security forces’.
On 9 March 2018, Şık and Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief, Murat Sabuncu, were released after more than five hundred days in pre-trial detention. However, the newspaper’s CEO, Akin Atalay, remains in prison. Atalay was arrested on 12 November, following a trip to Germany. Cumhuriyet takes a strong line against Erdoğan’s government and it is clear the authorities are trying to silence the paper. Şık, Sabuncu and Atalay are among seventeen staff facing terror-related charges. Others have been gradually freed over the last year. The charges against the journalists have been widely denounced as politically motivated. Ironically, Şık, accused of supporting FETO in this instance, was previously detained by Gülen-linked prosecutors for his book The Imam’s Army, which describes the infiltration by the movement of Turkey’s police and judiciary.
Turkey remains the world’s primary jailer of writers and journalists but international pressure can help. On 16 February, Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel was released from prison, following talks between Angela Merkel and the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yıldırım. He had spent just over a year detained without charge. Merkel’s intervention is believed to have secured his release. Hours later, however, six other journalists were handed down aggravated life sentences for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. They included Ahmet Altan, former editor-in-chief of the now defunct Taraf newspaper, his brother the columnist and academic Mehmet Altan, and veteran journalist and commentator Nazli Ilıcak. They were all sentenced for their alleged involvement in the 2016 attempted coup.
On 14 July, the day before the unrest, they had appeared together in a debate programme on a Gülen-linked television channel. The journalists discussed the forthcoming elections and the possibility that Erdoğan might not win a majority. Prosecutors claimed that their comments indicated they had prior knowledge of the coup attempt. The brothers were arrested in September under the state of emergency imposed by Erdoğan. A major part of the case against them centred on the farcical accusation that they had sent ‘subliminal messages’ to the coup plotters during the TV programme and in their articles. After this allegation was widely ridiculed in the national media, the prosecution reworded the charge so that it referred to the use of rhetoric ‘evocative of a coup’.
The indictment against the Altans is 247 pages long. They initially faced three consecutive life sentences each on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, parliament and the constitutional order as a result of their alleged links to Fethullah Gülen. On 13 February, speaking from a high-security prison via video link, Ahmet Altan stated in his defence: ‘Those in political power no longer fear generals. But they do fear writers. They fear pens, not guns. Because pens can reach where guns cannot: into the conscience of a society.’
According to Human Rights Watch and other lobby groups who have seen the indictment, the evidence cited appears to stem from their work as journalists, from news and opinion pieces, as well as from their phone records and contacts with alleged Gülenists. Their writings express opinions that are critical of the government but do not incite or advocate violence. There is nothing that suggests any kind of criminal wrongdoing, or that they had aided terrorism or planned a coup.
There were cries of dismay in the courtroom when it was announced that the three journalists had received aggravated life sentences. This gives them no chance of parole and they are likely to spend up to twenty-three hours a day in solitary confinement. This is the first conviction of journalists in Turkey related to the coup. Jennifer Clement, president of PEN International, warned that the decision sets a ‘devastating precedent’ for other journalists being tried on similar charges. PEN is calling on the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. A group of thirty-eight Nobel laureates has written an open letter urging Erdoğan to end the ongoing state of emergency, ensure a swift return to the rule of law and allow freedom of speech and expression in order to ‘make Turkey again a proud member of the free world’.
Readers might like to send appeals welcoming the release of Ahmet Şık and Murat Sabuncu; expressing dismay at the continued detention of Akin Atalay and calling for his immediate release; expressing outrage at the life sentences handed down to Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilıcak; and calling on the authorities to reverse the decision and release the journalists.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Minister of Justice
Milli Müdafaa Caddesi 22, Bakanlıklar
06659 Kızılay, Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 419 33 70
His Excellency Mr Abdurrahman Bilgiç
Turkish Embassy, 43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Fax: +44 20 7393 0066