Ali Ünal was a longtime columnist for the Zaman daily, which was shut down through a statutory decree under Turkey’s state of emergency in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016.
Ünal was taken into custody on 14 August 2016 in his hometown of Uşak as part of an investigation into the members of the religious movement led by Fethullah Gülen, labeled in 2016 by the government as a terrorist organization and accused of being the perpetrators behind the failed coup.
Ünal, his brother, Mustafa Ünal, and two others who were arrested during the same operation were taken to the court on 16 August. The court jailed all four on the charges of “membership in an armed terrorist organization,” “aiding a terrorist organization” and “disseminating propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
The indictment into Ali Ünal was submitted to the 2nd High Criminal Court of Uşak in July 2017, almost one year after Ünal was jailed pending trial. The 228-page document accused Ünal of being one of “the leaders of FETÖ/PDY” and claimed he had direct ties to Fethullah Gülen. The indictment said Ünal translated Gülen’s books, made 46 trips abroad, and he met with Gülen during a majority of those trips.
The indictment sought two life sentences for Ünal for being an administrator of “FETÖ/PDY” and an additional 29.5 years in prison.
Evidence against Ünal includes 17 of his newspaper columns and various spoken remarks. His cell phone, seized by authorities during his arrest, is subject to examination as part of the case.
The first hearing of Ali Ünal’s trial on the charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” “establishing and leading an armed terrorist organization” and “membership in a terrorist organization” was held on 4 January 2018 at the 2nd High Criminal Court of Uşak. Ünal’s brother is a co-defendant in the case.
In his defense statement during the nine-hour hearing, Ali Ünal talked about the 17 newspaper columns for which he is indicted. Asserting that he had been in prison for 17 months, Ünal pleaded for his release.
In its interim ruling at the end of the hearing, the panel ruled for the separation of Mustafa Ünal’s file and his release under judicial control measures while ordering the continuation of Ali Ünal’s detention. The court adjourned the trial until 27 February 2018.
At the second hearing of the trial on 27 February, the trial court again ruled for the continuation of Ünal’s detention. The court adjourned the trial until 10 May 2018 to allow additional time for the examination of Ünal’s mobile phone.
During the third hearing on 10 May, the prosecution submitted additional evidence against Ünal, consisting of two newspaper columns and a news story published in pro-government dailies Yeni Akit and Akşam.
Ünal’s lawyer, Ayşe Süeda Ünal, requested that Nurettin Veren, who penned the two Yeni Akit columns and Hasan Polat, a defendant in another case whose statement before the prosecutor was cited in the Akşam story, testify before the court.
Ünal, who addressed the court via the video conferencing system SEGBİS from the Buca Kırıklar High Security Prison in İzmir, objected to Veren’s credibility as a witness, saying Veren used to be part of the Gülen movement for 30 years and he turned hostile against him after he had refused to support him as a witness in a lawsuit against Gülen.
Ünal also responded to accusations against him, saying he was charged on the basis of 17 articles cited in the indictment but that 11 of them were published in 2011 and 2012 and had nothing to do with the charges.
Ünal said the government had acted together with the Gülen movement until 17 December 2013, when news of a corruption investigation targeting businessmen and politicians close to the government broke out, and that the pro-government media had also strongly supported the group until that date. “It is unacceptable that such massive support from the government is left aside but I am put on trial for attempted coup by writing columns once a week,” Ünal said.
“One of the biggest supporters of the group of which I am now accused of being a mastermind was the government,” he said. Ünal also denied accusations that he had supported alleged coup plot trials “Ergenekon” and “Balyoz,” saying there was not a single column where he clearly spoke in favor of these trials. “The biggest defender of these trials was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and this is very well known by the public,” Ünal said.
After Ünal completed his defense statement, the court went on to announce its interim decision in which it ruled that Veren and Polat testify as witnesses in a courtroom near their place of residence. The panel also ruled for the continuation of Ünal’s detention and adjourned the trial until 18 July 2018.
The court also ruled to ask the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) again to determine the IMEI number of a mobile phone that was seized when Ünal was arrested. The phone was later returned to Ünal’s lawyer but, according to the lawyer, was lost when she moved her office. During the hearing, the presiding judge asked Ünal’s lawyer about the IMEI number, too, but the lawyer protested, asking why the authorities did not get the number during the 16 months when they preserved the device as evidence.
The trial’s fourth hearing was held on 18 July 2018.
Yeni Akit columnist Nurettin Veren testified against Ünal during the hearing, after which the prosecutor submitted her final opinion.
In his testimony via SEGBİS, Veren claimed that Ünal was among top level leaders of “FETÖ” and served as an aide to Fethullah Gülen.
Ünal addressed the court via SEGBİS from the Buca Prison during the hearing.
Responding to Veren’s testimony, Ünal said he rejected all allegations. He said Veren’s claims were baseless and false and added that he has never had secret meetings with Gülen nor taken any orders from him. Ünal also said he was not Gülen’s advisor.
Noting that he spoke in nearly 1,000 conferences, all of which were public events, Ünal said that he was standing trial because of his thoughts and ideas. “I only wrote newspaper columns,” Ünal said.
Two books written by Ünal were then submitted to the court as evidence against him. Ünal’s lawyer Ayşe Süeda Ünal addressed the court next. She said there was no ban in place for the books in question.
“My client’s right to a fair trial is being violated. His name was not mentioned in the main FETÖ indictment,” the lawyer also said.
The lawyer added that witnesses should be heard in the courtroom and that failing to observe this rule constituted a violation of the right to a fair trial.
The prosecutor then submitted her final opinion of the case, seeking aggravated life sentences for Ünal on the separate coup charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” “attempting to overthrow the parliament” and “attempting to overthrow the government” and an additional prison term of up to 20 years under Article 39 of the Turkish Penal Code, which covers “assisting a crime.” The prosecutor then merged aggravated life sentence charges under Article 309, as it encompasses other offences. Ünal was originally charged with participating in the coup attempt of July 2016 as well as “leading a terrorist organization” in the indictment.
The prosecutor also requested that Ünal be remanded in prison.
Responding to the prosecutor’s final opinion, Ünal rejected the accusations and said the case file did not include even one evidence to prove the allegations. Ünal and his lawyer requested additional time to prepare the final defense statement in response to the prosecutor’s final opinion.
In its interim ruling at the end of the hearing, the court ruled for the continuation of Ünal’s detention and adjourned the trial until 5 September 2018.
The fifth hearing of the trial was held on 5 September in Uşak. The prosecutor temporarily replacing the original prosecutor in the case reiterated the charges in the prosecutor’s final opinion submitted during the previous hearing.
Ünal then told the court that he was unable to prepare his final defense statement due to health issues and requested for additional time.
His lawyer told the court that Ali Ünal was referred to a hospital for suspected cancer symptoms. The lawyer also requested for additional time for the defense statement.
The chief judge agreed to grant additional time for the defense, but said the panel would proceed without hearing the final defense statement and announce its verdict in the event the defense is not ready by the next hearing, which is set for 14 November 2018.
On 14 November, Ünal appeared before the 2nd High Criminal Court of Uşak for the final hearing of his trial on “coup” and terrorism-related charges.
Before the announcement of the verdict, Ünal made his final defense statement.
Addressing the court via SEGBİS from the Izmir No. 2 F Type High Security Prison, Ünal rejected the accusations.
Explaining to the court that he has been a newspaper columnist for 26 years and that his columns appeared in Zaman for 20 years, Ünal said he wrote and translated dozens of books in Turkish and English.
Asserting that his name did not appear in any other court cases targeting the Gülen movement, Ünal said he had not assumed any duties within the movement.
Ünal told the court that none of the witnesses who testified in his case could point to any substantial evidence to support the charge of “establishing and leading an armed terrorist organization.”
After Ünal and his lawyer completed their final defense statements, the prosecutor requested Ünal’s conviction on the charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” “establishing and leading an armed terrorist organization” and “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”
Announcing its verdict following a brief recess, the panel of judges acquitted Ünal of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” but convicted him of “establishing and leading an armed terrorist organization” and sentenced the columnist to 19 years and 6 months in prison.
Ünal is still behind bars in the Izmir No. 2 F Type High Security Prison.