Önder Çelik, a member of the execuitve board of Cumhuriyet Foundation, was arrested as part of an operation targeting Cumhuriyet newspaper’s staff and board members on 31 October 2016. Çelik was the newspaper's printing administrator.
Along with Çelik, Cumhuriyet Foundation board members Bülent Utku, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Güray Öz, Hakan Kara, Musa Kart, Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, editorial advisor Kadri Gürsel and the editor of the newspaper’s book supplement, Turhan Günay, were arrested.
According to a statement from the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, an investigation was launched on 18 August 2016 following “claims that [the newspaper’s] publications printed prior to the 15 July coup attempt served to legitimize the coup, on charges of committing crimes on behalf of the terrorist organizations FETÖ/PDY [Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure] and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)/Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK)” that led to the arrests of the Cumhuriyet staff. A court order issued on 30 October 2016 limited public access to the case.
Çelik and eight Cumhuriyet executives and employees were jailed pending trial by the Istanbul 9th Criminal Judgeship of Peace on 5 November 2016.
In the indictment submitted to the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, Çelik was accused of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” and “misuse of trust by virtue of office based on service relation.” The charges carried a combined prison sentence of 11.5 to 43 years.
Evidence against Çelik in the indictment included the records of his communications with two FETÖ suspects and three users of the encrypted messaging application ByLock. Another accusation claimed that Çelik and the executives who took office in 2013 were responsible for “a radical transformation in the newspaper's editorial policy” and “legitimizing the actions of armed terrorist organizations” such as “FETÖ/PDY, PKK/KCK, DHKP/C” through the newspaper. Çelik was also held responsible for the financial loss the foundation and the company suffered after his election to the board.
The first hearing in the trial of Cumhuriyet employees and executives was held on 24-28 April 2017 at the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
In his defense statement on the second day of the hearing, Çelik said: “I know that it is risky today as it is was yesterday to be employed or to be an employer in a dissident newspaper. Being secular, democratic, defending freedom and justice and remaining faithful to Atatürk’s principles are the essential aspects of my worldview. Based on assumed intentions and by collecting writings and news reports alleged to be ‘aiding and supporting terrorism’ you cannot arrest newspaper executives."
In its interim ruling on 28 April, the court ruled to release seven detained defendants in the case, including Çelik, while ordering the continuation of the pre-trial detentions of five defendants.
The final hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial was held on 24-25 April 2018. Fourteen Cumhuriyet columnists and executives, including Çelik, were handed down prison sentences for "aiding a terrorist organization without being its member." Çelik was sentenced to 3 years and 9 months in prison. The court acquitted all defendants of the "abuse of authority" charge.
Regional court finalizes sentence
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." The judgment finalized the sentences of eight defendants in the case, including Önder Çelik, since prison terms under five years cannot be appealed further once they are upheld by an appellate court.
On 25 April 2019, Çelik and five of his co-defendants were sent back to prison to serve the remainder of the sentences they were given in the Cumhuriyet trial.
Constitutional Court application
On 26 April 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would take up Çelik’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 Kadri Gürsel, on 2 May 2019.
At the end of the first day of deliberations, the court rejected the applications of Önder Çelik, Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık and Bülent Utku, while it ruled that Kadri Gürsel’s pre-trial detention violated his right to liberty and security. The Önder Çelik and Others application was filed on behalf of Çelik, Bülent Utku, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara and Güray Öz. The court rendered all decisions through a majority vote.
Supreme Court of Appeals judgment and release
On 16 July 2019, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals requested the reversal of the convictions against Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Aydın Engin and Ahmet Şık and the acquittal of all defendants except Şık. The Office of the General Prosecutor also said in their judicial opinion that the acquittal decision should apply to all other defendants in the case who were sentenced to less than five years in prison, except Emre İper.
On 12 September 2019, the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the convictions rendered in the Cumhuiryet trial. The Chamber also ruled for a stay of execution concerning Önder Çelik, Bülent Utku, Güray Öz, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara and Mustafa Kemal Güngör. who returned to prison in April 2019 to serve the remainder of their sentences. The Chamber ruled for the five imprisoned defendants to be released so as to prevent what might in the future entail a rights violation. The Chamber ruled to impose travel bans on Çelik, Öz, Kart, Kara, Güngör and Utku.
In accordance with the judgment, Çelik, Öz, Kart, Kara and Güngör were released from the Kandıra F Type Prison in the Kocaeli province late at night on 12 September 2019.
Çelik 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 Çelik. 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.