Standing up for journalism in Turkey

As part of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) campaign in support of journalists held in prisons or under threat of imprisonment in Turkey, I visited the country between 15 and 17 November. I attended two trials: other members of the EFJ’s governing board have also attended trials, and will continue to do so, in acts of solidarity.The Odatv trial was the first I attended.

It involved ten journalists working for Odatv – an online news portal known for its fierce criticism of government policies. The journalists were accused of being involved in an alleged coup plot to overthrow the government by a group known as ‘Ergenekon’.

The defendants have always maintained that the case was an excuse to bully independent and critical journalists.

The second, the KCK trial, was of 44 journalists and other employees of the Kurdish media, all accused of being members of a media committee operated by the outlawed KCK (the pan-Kurdish group the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Communities Union).

The reconvened Odatv trial took place on Friday 16 November, at the Judgement Palace in Istanbul. This was the 14th hearing.

Together with representatives from the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS), I arrived early to meet defendants and their supporters outside the courts.

My first (and brief) meeting was with İlhan Cihaner, a Member of Parliament from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Before taking his seat in parliament, Mr Cihaner was a prosecutor in the provinces of Adana and Erzincan. During his tenure in Erzincan, circumstances surrounding his investigations into İsmail Ağa and Fethullah Gülen groups led to his arrest and imprisonment, accused of being connected to Ergenekon. After a long process, during which he was never formally charged with a crime, he was released from detention.

As well as following the Odatv trial, he also attended the KCK trial later that day, at which I was also present (see below).

After speaking to Mr Cihaner, I was introduced to Ahmet Abakay, President of the Turkish Contemporary Journalists’ Association and the Rotating President of the Freedom for Journalists Platform.

We then joined the low-key protest outside the court where I met Muyesser Yildiz (the Odatv journalist adopted by the NUJ) her husband and her son, who speaks excellent English. Muyesser was released from prison in June, and returned to court in September and again on 16 November.

In the brief moments that we had together, I explained some of the NUJ’s activities in her support. After a photo-call and a couple of speeches, we made our way to the courtroom, in what is the biggest court complex in Europe.

Because of the interest in the case, and the small area set aside for the public within the courtroom, gaining admission took some time. When we finally got in, the name call of defendants was about to begin. Three of them are still being held in prison; the remaining five are free but ‘under charge’.

Procedures were then outlined and then the defence case was put.

Much of this comprised technical arguments in support of the defence’s line that incriminating material held on Odatv computers had in fact been planted, uploaded via emails.

I learnt later that the arrested suspects’ requests for release had been rejected by the court and another hearing (the 15th) would be held on 27 December.

Some might think that this date was chosen so that the number of foreign observers would be reduced because of the Christmas/New Year holiday.

Submissions were still being made when I had to leave the court to journey to attend the ‘KCK trial’ – in which 44 journalists are accused of backing the illegal group. This trial was held at Silivri Penitentiaries Campus (Europe’s largest penal facility) some 60 km from the city.

It had resumed earlier in the week, after a two-month break. All the defendants had joined a hunger strike in recent weeks. Thirty four defendants have been detained for 11 months at Silivri.

We arrived at 1.30 pm. First impressions of the prison and campus were grim. It was like a small town, housing over 10,000 prisoners. It was surrounded by barbed wire, and there was a heavy presence of riot police and water cannon to greet visitors.

When we entered the courtroom, defence lawyers and journalists (still on hunger strike) were giving evidence. Around 3.15 pm the court adjourned for the judges to consider their decision.

During the interval I spoke to a number of lawyers, supporters and relatives of the accused and gave a brief media interview. It was clear that defence was seeking to get the cases dismissed. The 800-page indictment had been read to the court earlier that week, when there was also a dispute about the defendants’ rights to testify in Kurdish.

The judge rejected the request.

At 4.20 pm the court re-assembled, without members of the public, who had to remain outside.

The outcome was predictable but disappointing. Two journalists were released, the rest were to remain in detention. I am not clear when the trial will be resumed.

However, what was also disturbing was that at the end of the proceedings the judge said that he would take legal action against some of the lawyers for what they had said in the course of defending their clients. I am seeking further information on this worrying development.

Two important developments occurred over the weekend after I had left the country.

Firstly, the 68-day hunger strike by prisoners across Turkey was called off on 17 November, after an appeal from jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. According to Turkish Justice Ministry figures, the hunger strikes had been joined by nearly 1,700 inmates.

Then, on Monday 19 November, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said that talks would be held with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

‘These talks have been held as and when deemed necessary in the past, and will be held in the future,’ Ergin told reporters in Ankara. Press reports say that he did not elaborate.

According to press reports, President Abdullah Gül has expressed his satisfaction with the ending of the hunger strike, saying it was time for a Parliamentary debate to speed up efforts for a resolution to Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish issue.

Source: Hürriyet Daily News – 20 November.

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