Orhan Erinç is the head of the Cumhuriyet Foundation’s Board of Directors. He also holds the copyrights to the newspaper and is a columnist of it.
Authorities issued a warrant to search the home of the the 81-year-old journalist as part of the operation into Cumhuriyet on October 31, 2016, but he wasn’t taken into custody with authorities citing his advanced age for not detaining him.
On November 16, 2016, Erinç was interrogated by a prosecutor in charge of the Cumhuriyet investigation. He was asked questions about some stories published in Cumhuriyet, about headlines used for these stories, witness statements and property sales conducted by the Cumhuriyet Foundation.
In the indictment prepared at a later time by the prosecutor listing 18 Cumhuriyet executives and employees including Erinç as suspects, the journalist was accused of “helping a terrorist organization without being its members” and “abusing his position in the way he served,” with the prosecutor demanding between 11.5 to 43 years for him in prison.
The prosecutor based his allegations on phone conversations he has had with people who used ByLock — allegedly the secret communications app used by the group officially titled the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure (FETÖ/PDY),” which the Turkish authorities say was behind the July 15, 2015 coup attempt, as well as witness testimony regarding the latest elections in the Cumhuriyet Foundation board. The prosecutor claims that Erinç, acting together with the other board members, made “radical changes” to the newspaper’s editorial policy and that the newspaper published reports seeking to “legitimize the actions of armed groups such as the FETÖ/PDY-Kurdistan Workers’ Party/Kurdistan Communities’ Union (PKK/KCK) and the Revolutionary People’s Communist Party Front (DHKP/C).”
Lawyers for the Cumhuriyet journalists and executives applied to the European Court of Human Rights in March, more than three months after filing an application with Turkey’s Constitutional Court for their release on the grounds that their detention constitutes rights violations. The European court notified the lawyers in April that although their application is not given formal priority treatment under Rules of Court, it will be discussed “as soon as possible.”
Erinç, who risks 43 years of imprisonment but was not imprisoned during the trial, appeared before judges for the first time on July 24-28, 2017.
Testifying on day four of the five-day hearing, Erinç said a criminal court cannot possibly question a change in the editorial policy of a newspaper.
On July 28, the court announced its interim ruling, deciding for the release of seven of the suspects — although it imposed on them an international travel ban — and for keeping five others, four of whom are journalists, in prison.
The second hearing in the trial was held on September 11, 2017, at the courtroom inside the Silivri Prison premises. A detailed report about the hearing, in which no new release decisions were rendered, can be reached here.
The third hearing was held on September 25 at the Çağlayan courthouse. Three of the defendants delivered defense statements during the hearing, in which Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel was released pending judgment.
During the fourth hearing, held on October 31, digital forensics expert Tuncay Beşikçi testified in relation to the encrypted messaging application ByLock. During the hearing, a new piece of evidence was introduced by the investigating prosecutor despite objection from defense attorneys. The session concluded without any new release orders.
The hearing scheduled for December 25 and 26 was concluded earlier than expected after defendant Ahmet Şık’s defense statement was cut short on grounds that it was “political” and Şık was removed from the courtroom. On the first day, after the presiding judge had Şık expelled from the courtroom on grounds that he “disrupted the order of the proceedings,” Cumhuriyet’s lawyers filed for a recusal. The panel of judges then decided that it would not be possible to hear the two witnesses who were expected to testify during the hearing and went on to issue an interim ruling, ordering the continuation of detention of the defendants on remand and of the judicial control measures imposed on the other defendants in the case, and setting March 9, 2018, as the date of the next hearing.
At the end of the March 9 hearing, Cumhuriyet reporter Ahmet Şık and editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu were released from Silivri Prison pending the conclusion of the trial. The court ordered the continuation of the detention of Akın Atalay, and it also set March 16 as the date of the next hearing.
During the seventh hearing on March 16, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, requesting that 13 members of the Cumhuriyet staff, including Orhan Erinç, are convicted on charges of “aiding an armed organization without being its member.”
The court announced its verdict at the final hearing on held on April 24-25, 2018, convicting 14 Cumhuriyet columnists and executives, including Erinç, of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” Erinç was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison but the court did not order his re-arrest.
All of the defendants charged with “abuse of authority” in the indictment were acquitted of that charge while the court ruled to impose judicial control measures on all of the defendants who were handed down prison sentences.
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.
Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya and Murat Sabuncu can further appeal the verdict with the Supreme Court of Appeals since the prison terms they have been imposed are longer than five years.