Turkey: Judicial harassment of ex-Cumhuriyet journalists must end

On 21 November 2019, the retrial of ex-Cumhuriyet journalists and staff was re-opened and closed at the 27th High Criminal Court. In a welcome move, the court acquitted Kadri Gursel, however it upheld its April 2018 judgment against the other defendants, finding them guilty of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation’ with the accompanying sentence of up to 7.5 years in jail. The court rushed through the proceedings, forcing the defendants to make final defence statements with no time to prepare, further underlining the fair trial concerns which have marred this case from start to finish.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish authorities to drop all charges in this case, cease the harassment of journalists and fully protect the right to freedom of expression. The Turkish authorities must also take immediate and credible steps to ensure the independence of the judiciary and the protection of the right to a fair trial.

The 27th High Criminal Court had been tasked with considering whether to implement a September judgment from the Supreme Court of Appeals or uphold its previous ruling from the first trial in April 2018. The Supreme Court of Appeals had issued a ruling in September overturning the conviction of all 12 defendants, except for Ahmet Şık, for whom new more serious charges of “terrorism propaganda” and “denigrating the bodies and organs of the state of the Turkish Republic” were issued. The case will now be sent back to the Supreme Court of Appeals, which will make the final decision.

Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 said:  “The hearing represents a new chapter in the tragic farce of the proceedings against the ex-Cumhuriyet journalists. From the first arrests in October 2016 onwards, this prosecution has only served to put legitimate journalism on the stand, in a procedure mired in flagrant violations of fair trial rights.

 “The most recent hearing was no different and saw the continuation of this judicial harassment;” he added.

Fair trial rights and procedural irregularities

The hearing also raised concerns regarding several procedural irregularities and violations of the right to a fair trial, as the presiding judge unexpectedly directed the defendants to immediately deliver their final statements. The Court ignored objections from defence counsel, who raised the need to follow procedure, according to which a decision must first be given regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling. In this case however, the defendants were ordered by the court to provide a final statement without knowing what charges were responding to and without having been given an adequate opportunity to consult with their lawyers to prepare their defence. In spite of this, many used the opportunity to make an eloquent defence of independent journalism but to no avail.

The hearing conditions were inadequate: although the hearing took place in one of Europe’s largest courthouses, there was not enough room to accommodate the audience and the audio system was not loud enough to enable the audience to follow the proceedings. A court sketch artist was removed from the room and, before the verdict was pronounced, so was the rest of the audience. The court gave no reasoning or adequate explanation for either of these decisions.

ARTICLE 19 will continue to monitor this trial. The journalists’ applications Sabuncu & others and Şık  – remain pending before the European Court of Human Rights, despite them having been attributed priority status over two years ago.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish authorities to:

  • drop the charges against all defendants in the case and to cease the prosecution of journalists and media workers in the absence of any credible evidence demonstrating involvement in an internationally recognised crime.
  • take immediate and credible steps to ensure the independence of the judiciary and the protection of the right to a fair trial, including by repealing constitutional amendment 159, to prevent political interference in the Council of Judges and Prosecutors.