Fourteen months on from arrest, Zaman journalists appear in court

September 21, 2017

People gather in solidarity outside Zaman newspaper in Istanbul in March 2016

When the 15 July 2016 putschists attempted a coup in Turkey, no one could foresee that the journalists, columnists and staff of opposition newspapers and TV channels would be the target of such a massive detention and arrest campaign by the authorities.

However, days after the coup was halted, a large number of reporters, authors and staff of Zaman Daily, which is linked to the Gülen movement, led by the USA-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, were accused of orchestrating the failed coup. The arrests began immediately. 

Journalists Ali Bulaç, Şahin Alpay, Mümtaz’er Türköne, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Mustafa Ünal and others were put in jail based on their articles, written on 17 December 2013. After the paper reported on a corruption scandal, in which then-key government members were involved, the prosecution claimed these writers were “part of an organised attempt against the government”. Based on their articles, the prosecution forged a link between the coup attempt and the journalists. “Attempting to abolish the Constitution, and membership to a terrorist group” are very common charges levelled against dissident journalists and intellectuals. In brief, the main motivation of such cases, a fashion among the judiciary, is to make these people look like “putschists”.

The 64-page indictment, which was prepared 300 days after the arrests, an unlawful detention period, consisted of only the titles of the articles, which were the only evidence provided to support the accusations. Not a single word of the content from the articles was used. 

Four-hundred-and-twenty days on from the arrests, some of the journalists finally appeared before the court and made their defence. They stand trial at a courtroom close to notorious Silivri Prison where they are also being held. Despite objections from all the journalists, the court ruled at the end of the two-day hearing to continue their detention.

Bulaç, a vigorous advocate of Islamist ideology within Turkey, took to the floor to give his defence. Following a brief introduction, he talked about his frustration with the Gülen movement. He said he believes in his that elements of the movement were involved in the attempted coup.

Bulaç highlighted that he was subjected to ill-treatment during the police interrogation, including being mocked. He stated that such humiliation continued while in prison. He made clear in his defence that the religious group, which was once known for its services for people, evolved into “FETÖ”, a term coined by Turkey’s AKP government, meaning “a terrorist group supporting Fethullah Gülen”.

The most striking part of his defence was when Bulaç said he regretted writing for Zaman. He then asked the politicians who once supported the movement and later on separated: “You tell the public that they were deceived by the movement. But I was also deceived. So what makes a difference between you and me?”

Having expressed his objections to the evidence against him, Bulaç reiterated that none of his actions could be considered to be terrorist acts.

“Did I give the orders to stage a coup? Did I take part in pre-coup meetings? Did I bomb those innocent people who were killed on that night by jet fighters? Did I launder money on behalf of the group? Did I illegally transfer money abroad? Did I had relation with the police and military officers who actively took part in the process? No, none. So how can I be labelled as the member of the organization?” Bulaç asked.

Another well-known Zaman journalist, Alpay, is 73-years-old with multiple health conditions, including high blood pressure, prostate and heart conditions, loss of hearing and difficulty in breathing, among others. As a result, he has required medical treatment while in prison. 

All defendants in the case face three times aggravated life sentences plus 15 years in jail. Alpay questions how his articles could merit such an extreme prison term. He argues that the evidence against him is nonsense. 

As to why he wrote for Zaman rather than other media outlets, Alpay said the daily was the only one which opened its doors to him and that it pursued a policy of reaching out to all parts of the society by inviting various authors with different political backgrounds.

“The movement was a vigorous supporter of Turkey’s European Union membership bid. However, I was disappointed with the movement after I realised it had a dark side. I am extremely regretful for writing for Zaman,” Alpay added.

Alpay believes he will be acquitted of all charges against him and asked the panel of judges to release him pending trial so that he could spend the rest of his life with his children and grandchildren.

The story of İbrahim Karayeğen, who was the night editor of Zaman, is a little different from the other defendants. After he was detained in July 2016, his relatives hadn’t heard from him for eight days and the lawyer representing him said that Karayeğen faced torture. His lawyer was later arrested and sent to prison.

In his court defence, Karayeğen said that he was beaten by prison guards in the corners of the Silivri Prison where no surveillance camera exist. He shouted “justice doesn’t exist” during one of these assaults. He was held in a solitary confinement for six-and-a-half months.

Although he didn’t write a single article for the daily, the prosecution charged him with writing articles supporting the coup attempt. Karayeğen underscored that he didn’t write columns for Zaman during his working life in the daily. Explaining that he had no authority to determine the daily’s editorial policy, Karayeğen asked for his release. But his hopes also faded as the court decided for the opposite.

The next hearing is on 8 December, where a decision will be made whether Alpay’s health is an obstacle to his being held in prison. 

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