On the eve of World Press Freedom Day 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court took the staggering decision to rule, after over two years, that the arbitrary arrest and detention of four former journalists with the secular newspaper Cumhuriyet did not violate their rights to liberty and free expression.
After a session on May 2, the Court said it found that the rights of journalists of Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık, Bülent Utku and former Cumhuriyet CEO Akın Atalay had not been violated, despite a lack of any credible evidence to support terrorism charges against them. However, the Court did find a rights violation in the cases of IPI Executive Board member and former Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel and Yeni Şafak columnist Murat Aksoy, who was prosecuted in a separate case and sentenced to two years one month for “aiding and abetting a terrorist organization.”
The split decision came despite the fact that all five defendants in Cumhuriyet trial were convicted in April 2018 after extended pre-trial detention on almost identical charges of “knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organisation whilst not being a member” and were accused by the prosecutor of having changed the editorial line of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper, to support a trio of outlawed organizations – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the leftist DHKP-C and the movement supporting the exiled Islamic cleric Fetullah Gülen – that espouse largely mutually exclusive ideologies.
Gürsel, who is also the chair of IPI’s Turkey National Committee, said of the decision:
“Yesterday, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that my rights to freedom of expression, liberty and security were violated by my imprisonment for 11 months during the ongoing Cumhuriyet trial. Two years, four months and eight days have passed since my initial appeal to the Constitutional Court. We say that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, and that is true in my case. But we have seen an even greater denial of justice to my co-applicants, as the Court found no violations of their rights. Like myself, they were convicted in the absolute absence of evidence, in a case based on equally farcical allegations.”
In total, 14 Cumhuriyet journalists and staff members received jail sentences in April 2018; those verdicts were upheld on appeal this February. Last week, six of the defendants with sentences of less than five years were returned to prison to serve out the remainder of their terms. Those with longer sentences are still able to appeal to Turkey’s Supreme Court. Yesterday’s Constitutional Court decision appears to certain to end hopes that the Supreme Court would override the appeals limitation for sentences less than five years.
Today, the Court reviewed three more journalists’ individual applications – Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and Ali Bulaç – and ruled that only in the case of Bulaç there was a violation of rights. The applications of Altan and Ilıcak, who have been sentenced to the aggravated life sentence, were rejected.
Speaking of the decision, IPI’s Turkey Advocacy Coordinator, Caroline Stockford, added:
“On World Press Freedom Day, the hopes of innocent journalists of receiving justice are again cruelly dashed in a country that is not only the highest jailer of reporters and media workers but whose judicial system has failed to uphold values of impartiality and independence.”
IPI considers it a mockery of justice that journalists are required to spend years in jail awaiting the exhaustion of domestic legal remedies in a country where constitutional amends passed in 2017 vastly expanded executive powers and effectively ended the independence of the judiciary.
IPI calls on the Council of Europe to recognize that the rule of law no longer exists in Turkey and that journalists who are routinely and arbitrarily deprived of their rights to liberty and freedom of expression have absolutely no legal recourse in their own country. The European Court of Human Rights must hear and rule on these cases with great urgency.