Ali Bulaç, a sociologist, theologian and former columnist of the shuttered Zaman and Yarına Bakış newspapers, was arrested on 27 July 2016 as part of an investigation targeting media outlets allegedly affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen movement. On 30 July 2016, Bulaç and other former Zaman columnists Ahmet Turan Alkan, Nuriye Akman, Lale Kemal, Mustafa Ünal and Şahin Alpay were jailed pending trial by the Istanbul 4th Criminal Judgeship of Peace on the charge of “membership of a terrorist organization.”
Bulaç and other columnists were accused of “praising FETÖ/PDY” and “continued to work as columnists for the newspaper even after its former Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı was formally charged with ‘membership of a terrorist organization’” and “although there were strong signs that the organization would stage an armed insurrection before the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, they continued to contribute to the newspaper” and “even after the 17-25 December 2013” graft probes.
On 1 December 2016, upon a request by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office, the Istanbul 11th Criminal Judgeship of Peace ruled to confiscate the properties of Bulaç and 53 others on the grounds that they “financed the terrorist organization or acquired assets through being a member of a terrorist organization.”
The indictment against Bulaç and 29 others was accepted by the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court. In the indictment, the suspects were charged with “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, the Turkish Grand National Assembly and the government of the Republic of Turkey” and “membership of an armed terrorist organization.”
On 9 March 2017, Bulaç’s lawyers lodged an application with the Constitutional Court, claiming that his detention as part of the Zaman trial violates his right to liberty and security and freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The first hearing of the “Zaman trial” was held on 18 and 19 September 2017. In his defense at the hearing, Bulaç said, “Even though the prosecutor states there isn’t any element of crime in my articles, he accuses me at the end of the indictment.” At the end of the hearing, the court lifted the restriction on access to lawyers and adjourned the trial until 8 December 2017.
Prosecutor’s final opinion
At the third hearing of the trial on 5 April 2018, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, asking the court to sentence Bulaç and nine former Zaman columnists and staff members to aggravated life imprisonment and an additional 15 years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the Constitutional order” and “membership of a terrorist organization.”
Released pending trial
The fourth hearing was held on 10-11 May 2018 at the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court. The court release Bulaç and Zaman’s former Responsible Managing Editor Mehmet Özdemir under judicial control measures and lifted Şahin Alpay’s house arrest. Ali Bulaç was released from Silivri No. 9 Prison later on 11 May 2018.
The fifth hearing of the trial was held on 7-8 June 2018. Making his defense statement in response to the accusations in the prosecutor’s final opinion, Bulaç said Zaman was a legal establishment until the day it was shut down. Stating that his newspaper articles were not considered as a whole in the indictment and the final opinion, Bulaç said only some of his sentences were cherry-picked by the prosecutor.
The final hearing of the Zaman trial was held on 5-6 July 2018. The court convicted six of the 11 journalists on trial, including Bulaç, of “membership in a terrorist organization.” Bulaç was sentenced to 8 years and 9 months in prison. The court ruled for the continuation of the judicial control measures imposed on Bulaç.
Constitutional Court application
The Plenary of the Constitutional Court ruled on Bulaç’s individual application on 3 May 2019. The Court ruled by a majority that Bulaç’s pre-trial detention as part of the Zaman trial violated his right to liberty and security and freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The court ordered a payment of TL 25,000 to Bulaç in non-pecuniary damages.
The reasoned judgment in writing was issued on the Constitutional Court’s official website on 26 June 2019.
Regional court upholds judgment
The 2nd Criminal Chamber of the İstanbul Regional Court of Justice issued its judgment concerning the Zaman trial in June 2019. The appellate court upheld the convictions rendered by the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court.
Supreme Court of Appeals judgment
On 24 September 2020, the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of Ali Bulaç and two of his co-defendants. The judgment became official two months later, when it was uploaded to UYAP (national judiciary informatics system) in December.
The Chamber held that Bulaç, Mümtazer Türköne and Şahin Alpay should be charged with "aiding a terrorist organization without being its member." The files of Bulaç, Türköne, Alpay and Mehmet Özdemir were sent to the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court for a retrial.
The retrial of former Zaman columnists Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Mümtazer Türköne and editor Mehmet Özdemir got underway on 13 April 2021 at the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court.
Ruling in line with the requests of the three defendants and the prosecutor, the trial court unanimously decided to comply with the Supreme Court of Appeals’ reversal judgment.
The lawyers representing Alpay, Türköne and Bulaç requested a continuance to prepare their statements in response to the new accusation.
Issuing an interim ruling, the court decided to issue an arrest warrant for Özdemir, who did not attend the hearing, and rejected Türköne’s request for the lifting of the judicial control measures at this point. Also ruling to hear Hüseyin Gülerce, Binnaz Toprak, Ümit Erol and Zekeriya Tüzen as witnesses, the court set 9 September 2021 as the date for the second hearing.
European Court of Human Rights judgment
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on 8 June 2021 that Ali Bulaç's pre-trial detention as part of the "Zaman trial" violated his right to liberty and security (ECHR 5/1) and his freedom of expression (Article 10). The Strasbourg Court ordered that Turkey pay Bulaç 12,240 euros in compensation for non-pecuniary damages.