25 journalists facing "terror" charges in the "FETÖ media trial" sentenced to prison by the Istanbul 25th High Criminal Court. 18 of the journalists ordered to remain behind bars
Twenty-five journalists facing terror charges in the trial publicly known as the "FETÖ media trial" were sentenced to prison by the 25th High Criminal Court of Istanbul on 8 March 2018, ending a long trial fraught with controversy. While only one defendant was acquitted, the court ruled to continue the detention of 18 journalists who have already been behind bars for 20 months pending the appeal process. Another defendant who had been released during a previous hearing was re-arrested.
Journalist and columnist Murat Aksoy and musician Atilla Taş, who penned columns for Meydan newspaper between 2015 and 2016, were both sentenced for “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization while not being part of its hierarchical structure.” Aksoy was sentenced to 2 years and 1 month in prison, while Taş was given a sentence of 3 years, 1 month and 15 days. Both will remain free pending the appeal process. The court, however, ruled to maintain their travel ban.
The court sentenced 11 journalists to 6 years and 3 months in prison for “membership in an armed terrorist organization,” judging that their "actions and intent didn’t require a term of incarceration that exceeds the lower limit set for the crime." They are: Abdullah Kılıç (former columnist for the shuttered Millet daily and former Habertürk TV broadcasting coordinator), Bayram Kaya (former Ankara reporter for the shuttered Zaman daily), Bünyamin Köseli (former reporter for Zaman daily), Cemal Azmi Kalyoncu (former reporter for the shuttered Aksiyon magazine), Cihan Acar (former reporter for the shuttered Bugün daily), Habip Güler (former reporter for Zaman daily), Halil İbrahim Balta (former economy reporter for Zaman daily), Hanım Büşra Erdal (former courthouse reporter for Zaman daily), Hüseyin Aydın (former reporter for the shuttered Cihan News Agency), Yakup Çetin (former reporter for Zaman), Yakup Çetin (former reporter for Zaman) and Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu (editor-in-chief of Türk Solu magazine).
Twelve other defendants were sentenced to 7 years and 6 months for “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” The court said in its judgment that their "actions and intent required a higher sentence than the lower limit set by law for the crime." They are: Ahmet Memiş (former news coordinator for the news portal Haberdar.com), Ali Akkuş (former news director for Zaman), Muhammed Sait Kuloğlu (founder of the news portal Şubuhaber), Mustafa Erkan Acar (news director for Bugün), Mutlu Çölgeçen (former Ankara news director for Sabah), Oğuz Usluer (former coordinator of Habertürk TV), Seyid Kılıç (former reporter for public broadcaster TRT), Ufuk Şanlı (business journalist and former economy director and columnist for al-Monitor), Ünal Tanık (founder of the shuttered news portal Rotahaber), Yetkin Yıldız (editor for the news portal Aktif Haber), Cuma Ulus (former news director for Habertürk TV) and Davut Aydın, who is a teacher.
Muhterem Tanık, the wife of Ünal Tanık, was acquitted.
The court ruled to re-arrest Ali Akkuş, who was the first defendant to be released in the case in April 2017. The other four defendants who were released in previous hearings but were sentenced for “membership in an armed terrorist organization” -- Bünyamin Köseli, Cihan Acar, Halil İbrahim Balta and Davut Aydın -- will remain free pending the appeal process, the court ruled.
Lawyer: Date when movement became terrorist organization should be set
Defense lawyers pointed out that most of the news articles or tweets presented as evidence against the defendants dated back to a period when the Fethullah Gülen movement had close ties with the government. The first official announcement declaring the Fethullah Gülen movement as a terrorist organization only came following the Cabinet meeting on 30 May 2016, Zaman reporter Hanım Büşra Erdal’s lawyer Ümit Kardaş said. “A report from the Venice Commission highlighted the vagueness regarding the date when the Fethullah Gülen congregation turned into a terrorist organization. This vagueness can result in decisions contrary to the principle of non-retroactivity of criminal law,” Kardaş said.
The defendants and their lawyers also criticized the prosecutor for his selection of tweets to accuse them of “creating perception.” “How can I create perception with 275 followers?” former Habertürk TV news director Cuma Ulus asked. Ulus also expressed his dismay at his tweets being included in the indictment. “In one of the three tweets in the indictment I wrote ‘Now it’s time for solidarity, journalism is not a crime.’ Should I have said ‘journalism is a crime?’” he asked.
Ümit Kardaş said that the accusation was not judicially acceptable and could only correspond to the crime of “terrorism propaganda.”
Lawyer Barış Topuk, who represents several defendants in the case, said accusing defendants of "creating perception" would amount to trying to “interpret their intentions.”
Inconsistencies in ByLock data
Many of the defendants were also accused of having downloaded and used ByLock, a messaging application purported to be used exclusively by the Fethullah Gülen network. In his defense statement, former Habertürk TV coordinator Oğuz Usluer pointed out the lack of clarity of the reports and criticized the court for refusing to send the reports to independent experts. Data regarding the location, the time and the IP number of ByLock connections were highly inconsistent in the report sent by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) and the log report prepared by the Police Department. Some data was absurd, Usluer said, such as being connected to the application for more than 24 hours in a day. “According to the report, I enter the tunnel on the TEM highway near the War Academy at 3.52 a.m. and remain there until 8 a.m. in the morning, connecting 550 times to ByLock,” Usluer said.
Similarly, Ufuk Şanlı said BTK’s report showed 1,258 connections to ByLock while the Police Department’s report only showed eight connections. “So, what are the remaining 1250 connections?” he asked.
Barış Topuk said the report failed to establish data beyond reasonable doubt. “The court should not declare a verdict without removing the doubts concerning the ByLock use. If there is a doubt, the defendant should be the one benefiting from it,” he said.
The trial became highly controversial after 12 defendants had been detained hours after their release on 31 March 2017 and jailed pending trial on "coup" charges after two weeks. The judges who ruled for their release were dismissed by the council of Judges and Prosecutors and a new panel was appointed to the court. The court is now bound to announce its reasoned judgment within 15 days, following which the verdict can be appealed at a regional court of justice.