Kadri Gürsel, a veteran journalist and the head of IPI Turkey Committee, was arrested on October 31, 2016, as part of an operation targeting executives and columnists of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper. Gürsel is indicted for “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member,” an offense punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Prosecutor accuses Gürsel of being in communication with people who use ByLock, an encrypted smart phone messaging application that is allegedly used by members of what the government calls the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure (FETÖ/PDY). The prosecutor also accuses Gürsel of “attempting to create an impression that there is an authoritarian regime in Turkey” and maintains that he is “responsible” for what he calls a “radical shift” in Cumhuriyet’s editorial stance and its publications “serving the manipulative objectives of FETÖ/PDY and the PKK/KCK organizations.” Click here to read the full indictment against Cumhuriyet journalists and executives (in Turkish). Lawyers for 10 Cumhuriyet journalists and executives, including Gürsel, applied to the European Court of Human Rights in March 2017, more than three months after filing an application with Turkey’s Constitutional Court for their release on the grounds that their detention constitutes rights violations. The European court notified the lawyers in April 2017 that although their application is not given formal priority treatment under Rules of Court, it will be discussed “as soon as possible.” In June 2017, the court revealed that it has asked the Turkish government to respond to a set of questions pertaining to the rights violations complaints raised in the application until October 2, 2017. Gürsel appeared for the first time before judges during the first hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial on July 24, 2017 at the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court. He was the first to submit a defense statement in the trial. He denied all the claims against him and said: “I stand before you not because I ‘aided a terrorist organization knowingly and willingly without being its member’ but because I am an independent, questioning and critical journalist.” A Turkish version of Gürsel's defense statement can be found here. On July 28, 2017, at the end of the five-day hearing, the court announced its interim ruling. It ruled for Gürsel and four others to remain in prison and for the release of seven of the defendants from prison pending completion of trial. The court reasoned that there is “beyond reasonable doubt” of crime in that Gürsel had had phone conversations with an “extraordinary” number of ByLock users. The next hearing in the trial took place on September 11 at the courtroom inside the Silivri prison complex. The third hearing took place on September 25, 2017 at the Istanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan. At the end of that hearing, the court ruled for Gürsel’s release pending the conclusion of the trial, and the continued detention of the rest of his co-defendants. The fourth hearing in the trial was held on October 31, 2017. The fifth hearing in the case was held on December 25, 2017 and cut short when journalist Ahmet Şık was expelled from the courtroom after the judge said his defense statement was “political.” The Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court later ruled that Şık and all other imprisoned defendants in the case remain behind bars pending trial and set March 9, 2018, as the date of the next hearing.
At the end of the March 9 hearing, Cumhuriyet reporter Ahmet Şık and editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu were released pending the conclusion of the trial after spending more than 400 days in pre-trial detention at the Silivri Prison in Istanbul. The court ordered the continuation of the detention of Akın Atalay, the chairman of the newspaper’s executive board, and it also set March 16 as the date of the next hearing.
During the seventh hearing on March 16, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, requesting that 13 members of the Cumhuriyet staff, including Kadri Gürsel, are convicted on charges of “aiding an armed organization without being its member.”
The court announced its verdict at the final hearing on held on April 24-25, 2018, convicting 14 Cumhuriyet columnists and executives, including Gürsel, of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” Gürsel was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison but remains free pending appeal. All of the defendants charged with “abuse of authority” in the indictment were acquitted of that charge while the court ruled to impose judicial control measures on all of the defendants who were handed down prison sentences. You can read the full indictment into Cumhuriyet journalists and executives here (in Turkish).
On 18 February 2019, the 3rd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice, an appellate court, upheld the convictions in the Cumhuriyet trial.
While Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Murat Sabuncu and Orhan Erinç can appeal the verdict with the Supreme Court of Appeals, eight of the defendants in the case, including Kadri Gürsel, will have to return to prison to serve the remainder of the sentences they were imposed since prison terms under five years cannot be appealed further once they are upheld by an appellate court.
The trial court issued an order for the execution of the eight sentences on 25 April 2019, issuing arrest warrants for Güray Öz, Önder Çelik, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Bülent Utku and Emre İper. The prosecution issued a summons for Kadri Gürsel as the remainder of his sentence corresponds to a brief prison term. Gürsel was summoned to the courthouse by the prosecutor on 20 May 2019 for the execution of the remainder of his sentence. On 29 May, Gürsel surrendered to the Istanbul Courthouse. After the completion of the procedures for his admission to prison, Gürsel was sent to the Metris Prison in Istanbul. Immediately after Gürsel's admission to prison, his lawyers filed a petition with the Bakırköy Judge of Execution, requesting Gürsel's release on probation. The Judgeship ruled for Gürsel's release and Gürsel was subsequently freed from the Metris Prison later that day.
Constitutional Court application
On 26 April 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would take up Gürsel's individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine other people, including his co-defendants in the Cumhuriyet trial, Ahmet Şık, Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay and Önder Çelik, on 2 May 2019.
At the end of the first day of deliberations, the court rejected the applications of Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık, Önder Çelik and Bülent Utku, while it ruled that Kadri Gürsel’s pre-trial detention violated his right to personal liberty and security. The court rendered all decisions through a majority vote.