Turkey Upholds Prison Sentences for Journalists at Nation’s Largest Opposition Newspaper

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

An appeals court in Turkey on Tuesday upheld prison sentences for 14 reporters and executives from the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Prosecutors charged the defendants with supporting exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of being the mastermind behind the 2016 coup against him.

The defendants deny these charges, while human rights groups around the world have denounced the prosecution as an offense against freedom of the press.

Reuters on Tuesday reported the Cumhuriyet staffers will be sent back to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences, some of which were considerably longer than others:

Cumhuriyet said that an appeals court had found the trial lawful and approved the convictions against its staff. The court’s decision finalises prison sentences under five years and the rest will now go to a higher court.

Journalists Kadri Gursel and Hakan Kara, cartoonist Musa Kart, lawyer Bulent Utku, and accountant Emre Iper will be sent back to prison to complete their sentences, all of which are less than five years, Cumhuriyet said.

Editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, prominent journalist Ahmet Sik, Hikmet Cetinkaya, Orhan Erinc, Akin Atalay and Aydin Engin will appeal against their sentences, all longer than five years, at a higher court, the paper added.

Bianet quoted several of the journalists saying goodbye to friends and supporters on social media:

Cartoonist Musa Kart said in a tweet, “Statement came from the government which is expected to find solutions for the current crises: Put the cartoonist in jail again! Yes, time for me to get going. Take care of yourselves…”

Columnist Güray Öz said, “The court of appeals upheld the verdict for Cumhuriyet’s writers and executives. You know, I am among them. Fortunately, I have done the last proofreading for my novel. We will not be able to meet for a while. Goodbye…”

Ahmet Şık a Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) İstanbul MP and a former reporter of the Cumhuriyet, quoting from Voltaire, saying, “We only have two days to live. It is not worth it to spend these days kneeling in front of vile people.”

Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International on Tuesday slammed the appeals court ruling as a “rubber stamp” for the persecution of opposition journalists by the Erdogan regime.

“The prosecution of scores of journalists and other media workers is an ongoing affront to press freedom and to justice. By using the courts to increase their stranglehold on the media, the authorities have once again displayed the ugly side of Turkey’s broken judicial system. This should ring alarm bells for anyone who cares about freedom of expression,” Gardner said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Cumhuriyet journalists were being “punished for doing their jobs” when their prison sentences were handed down in April.

“The Cumhuriyet trial is part a systematic effort to silence independent media and critical voices in Turkey to prevent public scrutiny of the government,” HRW Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson said, noting that most of the “evidence” against them merely quoted their published articles and social media posts, none of which contained any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

As HRW pointed out, the underlying theory of the case absurdly accused Gulen’s followers, the Kurdish separatists of the PKK party, and a left-wing group called the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front of creating a “consortium” of terrorism and using Cumhuriyet as their press office.

“This was a trial where the ‘crime’ was journalism, and the only ‘evidence’ was journalistic activities,” a group of 28 press freedom and human rights organizations said in a letter to the Council of Europe in April, urging the council to pressure Turkey to honor its human rights obligations.

“As if the ordeal of these former Cumhuriyet employees had not already dragged on for too long, the Turkish authorities are determined to pursue this punitive operation to the bitter end,” said Erol Onderoglu of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Tuesday. RSF was one of the organizations that signed the April letter to the Council of Europe.

“When will they understand that independent journalism is not an affront to be avenged, but a service rendered to society in its entirety?” Onderoglu asked. “We reiterate our call for these disgraceful verdicts to be overturned and we will stand alongside our unjustly persecuted colleagues until they finally receive justice.”

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