Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet and one of the seven founders of Punto24 Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), was arrested on 31 October 2016, along with nearly a dozen staff members and members of the executive board of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, which publishes the daily. A statement from the prosecutor’s office said the journalists were arrested for "spreading propaganda for the PKK" and what authorities call "FETÖ/PDY," both regarded as terrorist groups by the government. The statement also cited alleged "irregularities concerning election of members of the board of Cumhuriyet Foundation."
On 5 November 2016, Sabuncu and eight other Cumhuriyet journalists were jailed pending trial on the charge of "aiding FETÖ/PDY without being a member."
In the indictment against them, Sabuncu and fellow Cumhuriyet journalists and executives faced up to 15 years in prison on the charge of "aiding an armed terrorist organization without being its member." News reports published in the newspapaer were cited among grounds for the accusations.
The first hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial took place from 24-28 July 2017 at the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court.
Sabuncu was scheduled to address the court on the first day of the hearing, but was unable to do so as correctional officers at Silivri Prison seized his notes. Sabuncu made his defense statement on the second day of the hearing. He said: “The price of independent journalism in Turkey is imprisonment, then waiting for your indictment in a prison cell for five months and waiting for an entire nine months for a chance to be able to defend oneself in court.” On the fifth day of the sessions, the court rued to release seven Cumhuriyet employees while keeping Sabuncu and three other Cumhuriyet journalists as well as a fifth imprisoned defendant behind bars.
The next hearing took place on 11 September 2017. The court ordered the continuation of the detention of all jailed defendants. A report on the heairng can be found here.
The third hearing was held on 25 September 2017. Three witnesses were heard at the hearing and the court released columnist Kadri Gürsel.
The fourth hearing of the case was held on 31 October 2017. Sabuncu remained jailed pending trial.
The fifth hearing of the case, originally scheduled for 25-26 December 2017, was cut short when Ahmet Şık was expelled from the courtroom over his defense statement.
At the end of the next hearing held on 9 March 2018, Sabuncu and reporter Ahmet Şık were released pending the conclusion of the trial after spending more than 400 days in pre-trial detention at the Silivri Prison. The court ordered the continuation of the detention of Akın Atalay, the chairman of the newspaper’s executive board, and set 16 March 2018 as the date for the next hearing. Sabuncu and Şık were released from Silivri Prison later that night.
During the seventh hearing on 16 March 2018, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, asking the court to convict 13 Cumhuriyet staffers, including Editor-in-Chief Sabuncu, as charged.
The final hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial was held on 24-25 April 2018. Fourteen Cumhuriyet columnists and executives, including Sabuncu, were handed down prison sentences for "aiding a terrorist organization without being its member." Sabuncu was sentenced to 7 years and 6 months in prison and ordered to remain free pending the outcome of the appeal. The court acquitted all defendants of the "abuse of authority" charge.
Regional court upholds convictions
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, saying it did not find "any substantial or procedural violations" in the ruling or any "shortcomings in the evidence or proceedings."
Constitutional Court application
On 26 April 2019, Turkey's Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would take up Sabuncu's individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine other journalists, including his co-defendants in the Cumhuriyet trial, Ahmet Şık, Akın Atalay, Kadri Gürsel and Önder Çelik, on 2 May 2019. At the end of the first day of deliberations, the court rejected the applications of Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Önder Çelik and Bülent Utku, while it ruled that Kadri Gürsel’s pre-trial detention violated his right to liberty and security. The court rendered all decisions through a majority vote.
Supreme Court of Appeals overturns convictions
On 12 September 2019, the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the convictions rendered in the Cumhuriyet trial. On 16 July 2019, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals had requested the reversal of the convictions against Murat Sabuncu, Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Aydın Engin and Ahmet Şık and the acquittal of all defendants except Şık. The 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in line with the judicial opinion by the General Prosecutor, overturning former Cumhuriyet staffers’ convictions on the charge of "aiding a terrorist organization."
Sabuncu and 12 other former columnists and executives of Cumhuriyet daily appeared once again before the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul on 21 November 2019 for their retrial, ordered by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
In its unanimous ruling, the court acquitted Kadri Gürsel but ruled against the Supreme Court of Appeals concerning the rest of the defendants, including Sabuncu. The court once again convicted all 12 of "aiding a terrorist organization without being its member."
European Court of Human Rights application
Lawyers of Murat Sabuncu, Önder Çelik, Turhan Günay, Akın Atalay, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Kadri Gürsel, Hakan Kara, Musa Kart, Güray Öz and Bülent Utku lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights on 2 March 2017, more than three months after filing an application with Turkey’s Constitutional Court. The European Court notified the lawyers in April 2017 that although their application was not given formal priority treatment under Rules of Court, it would be discussed "as soon as possible."
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled on 10 November 2020 that the pre-trial detention of former Cumhuriyet journalists and executives as part of the “Cumhuriyet trial” violated their right to liberty and security and freedom of expression.
The Second Section of the Court held unanimously that Articles 5/1 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) had been violated. The Court ruled unanimously that there had been “no violation” of Article 5/4 (right to speedy review of the lawfulness of detention), saying periods of seven to 16 months were “justified by the exceptional caseload of the Constitutional Court following the declaration of the state of emergency.”
The Court ruled by a majority that there had been “no violation” of Article 18 (limitation on use of restrictions on rights), saying “existence of an ulterior purpose was not demonstrated.” The Court ordered that Turkey pay 16,000 euros to each of the applicants in non-pecuniary damages.