On September 30, 2021, International Press Institute (IPI) representatives monitored the third hearing of the retrial of Erol Önderoğlu, an IPI member and the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Turkey representative, as well as his two co-defendants, Şebnem Korur Fincancı and Ahmet Nesin. They are on trial for participating in a solidarity campaign with the now-shuttered pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem in 2016. IPI Turkey National Committee Chair Emre Kızılkaya previously monitored the first hearing on February 3.
Below are the observations from IPI representatives on the September 30 hearing.
September 30, 2021
The forecast for September 30 had predicted just a 40 percent chance of rain. However, the gathering dark clouds over the imposing walls of Istanbul’s justice hall were telling a different story. As the first raindrops fell, heralding the approaching downpour, the defendants in today’s trial of journalists and human rights activists slowly took their spot before a modest, yet determined, crowd that eagerly waited in front of the courthouse to hear them speak and show solidarity.
Şebnem Korur Fincancı, chair of the Turkish Medical Association (TMA), spoke first—with a gravity in her voice that put the lead-color sky to shame: “We are stuck in a trial that has been ebbing and flowing for the last five years. We have been fighting to protect our word, humanity, and human values. And we are not going to stop.”
The trial Fincancı referred to is the Özgür Gündem case. In 2016, several journalists and human rights activists took turns as guest editors-in-chief at the now-defunct Özgür Gündem newspaper to show solidarity against physical attacks and extrajudicial killings targeting the publication and its staff. Along with Fincancı, Erol Önderoğlu, an IPI member and the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Ahmet Nesin, an eminent mathematician and a civil rights activist, were arrested in June 2016 on the charges of supporting terrorism based on their symbolic support for the newspaper as guest editors. Following a public outcry and systematic social media campaign, the three defendants were released and tried without detention for the next four years, finally being acquitted in July 2020.
The acquittal verdict was reversed by the appellate court shortly after the TMA’s criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic – and after President Erdoğan’s disparaging reaction to that criticism. A retrial was ordered.
As Fincancı passed the word to Önderoğlu, little did we anticipate that the intensifying rain would make the perfect metaphor for the RSF country representative’s prediction on the outcome of the trial. He said he did not expect the judiciary to acquit them for the second time, especially after the president’s involvement. “Naturally we would like to be acquitted of such charges that were brought against us for exercising our fundamental rights and expressing our solidarity with a newspaper”, Önderoğlu remarked. “But it would be wishful thinking in an environment where the president can directly intervene in a criminal suit.” He further elaborated that he no longer saw himself as a defendant in a case that skidded away from legal considerations. He said it was the judges and prosecutors who faced a difficult decision and who were doing a difficult job under difficult circumstances. “These are not the right times to expect the best decisions pertaining to justice in Turkey”, Önderoğlu admitted. Lightning crackled somewhere above the courthouse, providing the perfect soundtrack for the journalist’s somber anticipations.
After a brief hearing whereby the defendants were asked if they had any additional statements, the trial was adjourned until February 1, 2022, to obtain the missing documents, to receive Ahmet Nesin’s written defense, and to subpoena the absentee witness İnan Kızılkaya.
As the defendants and their entourage slowly parted ways to meet again in February, the rain had stopped, and the low-hanging clouds betrayed the first traces of the silver lining.