On December 20, 2022, International Press Institute (IPI) representatives attended the final hearing in the trial of freelance journalist Sezgin Kartal, who was acquitted of the charges of “insult via audio, visual or written content” following a complaint by Fuat Uğur, a columnist for the pro-government outlet Türkiye Newspaper.
Kartal was charged with “insult” after criticizing a column by Uğur published on June 19, 2021, on an armed attack against a building of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in İzmir that killed one staff member. The column contained allegations regarding the attack, including that it was carried out by the “Global Gladio’s apparatus HDP and FETÖ”. The latter is the Turkish government’s designation for the movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen. Authorities consider the Gülen movement responsible for the 2016 coup attempt.
In a social media post, Kartal criticized Uğur’s column for what he said was misleading the audience to a deliberate confusion between the HDP and FETÖ.
During the third hearing on December 20, IPI representative Renan Akyavaş attended the trial to monitor the case. The following are her observations:
An “insult” case scrutinized by the police, and the journalist by the judge
The hearing, which was originally scheduled for 11:15 in the morning at the İstanbul 24. Criminal Court, started at 14:30, a delay of more than three hours. The hearing was also monitored by other local civil society representatives and journalists including Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), Pir Sultan Abdal Alevite Association, and P24. Kartal and his lawyers were expecting sentencing from the verdict as the MLSA lawyers explained that the rapid investigation and indictment processes were an indicator for such trials to quickly finish, and as in most cases, if the complainant has supportive views of the government, or the defendant is an independent journalist or an activist critical of the government, one can expect that the trial will end in favor of the former.
In MLSA’s previous monitoring of this trial, a private security guard reportedly checked the hearing schedule and the monitors attending during the second hearing. When asked for the reason for this “special” attention to the case, the guard reportedly said that they were told to follow the case by the General Directorate of Security. When I asked Kartal and his lawyers whether this unusual practice could stem from Kartal’s Alevite identity, both said they didn’t think so. However, they could not identify a specific reason behind this scrutiny either. While waiting for the final hearing, we also observed several different security guards come and check the hearing schedule, yet no other courtroom schedules were checked. After the third different security guard came to check the schedule, the third guard said that he was just strolling around the court during his break. Later another security officer in the company of a civil police officer waited until the hearing started.
We entered the room as the hearing started around 14:30. The presiding judge was quite young and visibly nervous and aggressive towards the defense. Next, the judge turned to Kartal in the dock and said aggressively: “Did you share the photo of my court again? Look, I am following your Twitter and at every hearing you are sharing a picture in front of the courtroom when getting in, getting out. I don’t want my court to be involved in this, I don’t want any more photos published!”, the judge said in a threatening manner. That day, the only tweet Kartal shared was IPI’s post in solidarity with Kartal in front of the courtroom calling for Kartal to be acquitted.
— IPI – The Global Network for Independent Media (@globalfreemedia) December 20, 2022
After an initial silence of shock for the monitors, the judge proceeded quickly to the formalities of the hearing, asking both the defendant and the complainant’s lawyers for their final remarks. As the MLSA lawyers representing Kartal gave a detailed explanation of the inconsistencies of the article’s arguments in dispute and why Kartal’s criticism is legitimate and was a result of peer-to-peer criticism, the young judge interrupted the defense several times asking them to “cut it short” so that “he could announce the verdict.” After around 20 minutes, the judge announced the ruling without giving a break and acquitted Kartal on the ground that the objective elements of the alleged crime were not constituted. This decision came despite the complainant and the public prosecutor’s demands for a sentence. It was also unexpected for Kartal and his representatives. Right before leaving the courtroom, the judge repeated his warning to Kartal not to publish photos taken in from of the courtroom.
As the decision was a pleasant surprise, I wonder if the local and international solidarity was indeed impactful in this case, as it might lead judges and prosecutors to feel they are under additional scrutiny by civil society and lead them to rule more fairly and in line with the law and fundamental rights.