The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and journalists defending press freedom, condemned a Turkish appeals court decision upholding jail sentences given to 14 current and former journalists and staff members of the secular newspaper Cumhuriyet.

An Istanbul appeals court yesterday confirmed the sentences handed down by a lower criminal court in April 2018. Former Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel, a member of IPI’s Executive Board and the chair of IPI’s Turkey National Committee, was sentenced to two years and six months behind bars. Gürsel previously spent 11 months in pre-trial detention. Former Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu and investigative journalist Ahmet Şık received seven years and six months each.

Journalists in the case with sentences greater than five years have the possibility of further appeal. Lower sentences are considered final under Turkish law.

IPI believes that the charges against Cumhuriyet staff are politically motivated and part of a campaign to silence independent media in the country. As much as 90 percent of the country’s press is currently under the sway of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi criticized the decision of the appeals court describing as “an appalling violation of the rule of law”.

“The Cumhuriyet journalists and staff members in this case were convicted despite no credible evidence. They committed no wrongdoing and were tried purely for reporting news the government didn’t like. The appeals decision shows that Turkey’s justice system is unable to protect journalists from violations of their fundamental rights.”

She added: “We urge the European Court of Human Rights to speed up its deliberations on cases brought by journalists from Turkey and, in the case that a violation is found, ensure that its rulings are respected and carried out. Europe must actively work to return Turkey to its community of values based on respect for human rights including freedoms of the press and expression.”

The defendants were convicted on charges of lending support to multiple terror organizations of vastly different stripes: the Kurdish PKK, the extreme-left DHKP-C, and FETÖ, a government designation for the movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey blames for the 2016 coup attempt.

However, despite seven hearings that in a case that lasted 17 months, prosecutors produced no actual evidence to support the charges, relying instead on news reports and social media posts as well as on records of innocuous or unavoidable contact – including contact attempts to which the accused did not respond – with individuals who had a secretive app on their phones said to have been used by Gülen’s followers.

Significantly, proceedings in the case were plagued by glaring violations of the rule of law. Defendants were effectively punished without conviction, having been held for months in pre-trial detention with arbitrary limits on outside contact and interference with their right to mount a legal defence.

Defendants and confirmed sentences:

Akın Atalay: 7 years, 13 months, 15 days
Orhan Erinç: 6 years, 3 months
Bülent Utku: 4 years, 6 months
Murat Sabuncu: 7 years, 6 months
Kadri Gürsel: 2 years, 6 months
Güray Öz: 3 years, 9 months
Önder Çelik: 3 years, 9 months
Musa Kart: 3 years, 9 months
Hakan Kara: 3 years, 9 months
Mustafa Kemal Güngör: 3 years, 9 months
Aydın Engin: 7 years, 6 months
Hikmet Çetinkaya: 6 years, 3 months
Ahmet Şık: 7 years, 6 months
Emre İper: 3 years, 1 month, 15 days
Three Cumhuriyet journalists and staff members, Bülent Yener, Günseli Özaltay and Turhan Günay, were acquitted.