The International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Director Barbara Trionfi spent the day on February 13 monitoring the trials of two journalists at Istanbul’s Çağlayan Courthouse.

Case postponed

The first trial observed by IPI on February 13 was that of Adil Demirci, a reporter with ETHA News Agency who is charged with spreading terrorist propaganda and being a member of a terrorist organization. He is a co-defendant with 22 others in a mass trial where defendants are accused of being affiliated with the outlawed Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP).

Demirci, who lives in Germany, was taken into custody on April 17, 2018, after a police raid on his house while he was in Istanbul. The charges relate to Demirci’s coverage between 2013 and 2015 of the conflict in the Syrian city of Kobanê, and the funerals of those who lost their lives in the violence.

He is facing a sentence from 15 up to 22 years and six months in prison. Demirci was released in February 2019 with a travel ban after 10 months behind bars. The ban was briefly lifted in June 2019 under special circumstances to allow Demirci to attend his mother’s funeral in Germany with the condition of 3000 euros in bail costs.  Subsequent requests to lift judicial control measures against all defendants have been refused by the court.

Thursday’s hearing held at Istanbul 25 High Criminal Court started later than scheduled around 10:20 am. This was the fifth hearing in the trial and Demirci was not in attendance. After brief statements of defense lawyers, the court adjourned the case until June 16, 2020, granting the defense additional time to prepare a final statement.

Trionfi was joined by a small trial monitoring delegation consisting of Reporters without Borders (RSF) Turkey Representative Erol Önderoğlu and representatives from the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) and the German Consulate in Istanbul.

Request for increased sentencing unexpected

The second trial monitored by IPI on February 13 was that of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, a correspondent with the German daily Die Welt. Yücel was detained on February 27, 2017, and held for nearly one year without an indictment. He was eventually charged with “making terrorist propaganda” and “inciting the public to hatred and enmity”. Yücel was eventually allowed to leave for Germany and is currently being tried in absentia.

The allegations relate to several articles he published in 2016 about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the movement headed by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey’s government blames for the failed July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

The latest trial was held at İstanbul 32nd High Criminal Court just after 12 am. In an unexpected move, prosecutors filed a request for Yücel to be sentenced to up to 13 years for “making consecutive terrorist propaganda via the press” over several articles quoting PKK leaders published in 2016.

The prosecution also requested an additional three-year sentence for “consecutive public incitement to hatred and enmity via the press” in his writings during the same period. The prosecution cited several articles written by Yücel as the basis for its “consecutive” claim.

According to Turkish criminal law, commitment of crimes via press in a consecutive manner increases the severity of the crime, allowing the prosecutor to call for a jail time for Yücel of a total of 16 years.

However, the prosecutor called for Yücel to be acquitted on charges of spreading “terrorist propaganda on behalf of FETÖ (Fethullahist Terrorist Organization)”.

In addition, the prosecution also requested a new investigation be opened against Yücel for a separate case on “insulting the president”. The basis for this request was a caption written by Yücel under a photo of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a November 2016 article in which he calls the president a “coup plotter”.

Yücel’s defense lawyer, Veysel Ok, said the defense team hadn’t seen the final opinion yet and requested additional time to review and prepare a response. However, he said the prosecutor’s new request was “terrible and unexpected”.

“After years of seeing the rule of law disrespected and the judiciary under evident political pressure – developments well-documented by IPI’s Trial Monitoring project – today defendants enter courts with the feeling that everything can happen: acquittals are seldom and harsh opinions by the prosecution come unexpected”, Trionfi said. “This leaves the journalism community with a sense of uncertainty and distrust that will affect Turkish society for years to come.”

In May 2019, the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that Yücel’s year-long detention violated his right to personal security and liberty, as well as his right to freedom of expression. Despite this ruling, the lower court refused to throw out the case and the trial continues.

The case was adjourned until 11:30 am on 2 April.