25 journalists were sentenced on terror charges by an Istanbul court. None of the journalists still in detention were released pending the appeal, while 1 defendant was re-arrested  

Twenty-five journalists were sentenced to prison on terror charges by the 25th High Criminal Court of Istanbul on March 8, ending a long trial fraught with controversy. While only one defendant was acquitted, the court ruled to continue the detention of 18 journalists who have already been behind bars for 20 months pending the appeal process. Another defendant who had been released during a previous hearing was re-arrested.

Journalist and columnist Murat Aksoy and musician-turned columnist Atilla Taş were both sentenced on charges of “helping an organization knowingly and willingly while not being part of its hierarchical structure.” Aksoy was convicted to 2 years and 1 month of prison, while Taş was given a sentence of 3 years 1 month and 15 days in prison, but both will remain free pending the appeal process. The court, however, ruled to maintain their travel ban.

The court announced that eleven journalists were sentenced on charges of “membership in an armed organization” to 6 years and 3 months in prison, judging that their actions and intent didn’t require a term of incarceration that exceeds the lower limit set for the crime. Those 11 journalists are: Abdullah Kılıç (former columnist for the shuttered Millet daily and former Habertürk TV broadcasting coordinator), Bayram Kaya (former Ankara reporter for the shuttered Zaman daily), Bünyamin Köseli (former reporter for Zaman daily), Cemal Azmi Kalyoncu (former reporter for the shuttered Aksiyon magazine), Cihan Acar (former photoreporter for the shuttered Bugün daily), Habip Güler (former reporter for Zaman daily), Halil İbrahim Balta (former economy reporter for Zaman daily), Hanım Büşra Erdal (former reporter for Zaman daily), Hüseyin Aydın (former reporter for the shuttered Cihan News Agency), Yakup Çetin (former reporter for daily Zaman), Yakup Çetin, (former reporter for Zaman daily) and Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu (editor-in-chief of the Turkish Left magazine).

12 other defendants were given a prison sentence of 7 years and 6 months on charges of “membership in an armed organization”. The court said in its verdict that their actions and intent required a higher sentence than the lower limit set by law for the crime. Those 12 defendants are: Ahmet Memiş (former news coordinator for the online news website Haberdar.com), Ali Akkuş (former news director for daily Zaman), Muhammed Sait Kuloğlu (founder of the online news website Şubuhaber), Mustafa Erkan Acar (news director for daily Bugün), Mutlu Çölgeçen (former Ankara bureau news director for daily Sabah), Oğuz Usluer (former coordinator of Habertürk TV), Seyid Kılıç (former reporter for public broadcaster TRT haber), Ufuk Şanlı (former economy director and al-Monitor writer Ufuk ŞAnlı), Ünal Tanık (founder of the shuttered online news website Rotahaber), Yetkin Yıldız (editor for the online news website Aktif Haber), Cuma Ulus (former news director for Habertürk TV) and Davut Aydın, educator and one of the two defendants in this case who are not journalists.

Muhterem Tanık, the other defendant who isn’t a journalist and spouse of the founder of the shuttered online news website Rotahaber, Ünal Tanık, was acquitted.

The court also ruled to re-arrest Ali Akkuş, who was the first defendant to be released in the case on April 2017. The other four defendants who were released in previous hearings but were sentenced on charges of “membership in an armed organization” — Bünyamin Köseli, Cihan Acar, Halil İbrahim Balta and Davut Aydın — will remain free pending the appeal process, the court ruled.

Lawyer: Date when movement became terror organization should be set

Defense lawyers pointed out that most of the news articles or tweets presented as evidence against the defendants dated back to a period when the Fethullah Gülen movement had close ties with the government.

The first official announcement declaring Fethullah Gülen movement as a terrorist organization only came following the Cabinet meeting on May 30, 2016, said Zaman reporter Hanım Büşra Erdal’s lawyer Ümit Kardaş. “A report from the Venice Commission highlighted the vagueness regarding the date when the Fethullah Gülen congregation turned into a terrorist organization. This vagueness can result in decisions contrary to the principle of non-retroactivity of criminal law,” Kardaş said. It is not fair to require defendants to know the purposes of the Gülen Movement when the state was unaware of it and many current officials had declared being ‘deceived,’ he said.

Lawyers and defendants also criticized the prosecutor for his selection of tweets to accuse them of “creating perception.” “How can I create perception with 275 followers?” former Habertürk TV news director Cuma Ulus asked. Ulus also expressed his dismay at his tweets being included in the indictment. “In one of the three tweets in the indictment I wrote ‘Now it’s time for solidarity, journalism is not a crime.’ Should I have said ‘journalism is a crime’” he asked.

Attorney Ümit Kardaş said that the accusation was not juridically acceptable and could only correspond to the crime of “spreading propaganda.” Attorney Barış Topuk, who represents several defendants in the case, said accusing defendants of creating perception would amount to trying to “interpret their intentions.” “Let’s just appoint a psychanalyst on that specific allegation so that we can understand which tweets are part of the activities of an organization,” Topuk said.

Inconsistencies in ByLock data

Many of the defendants were also accused of having downloaded and used ByLock, a messaging application purported to be used exclusively by the Fethullah Gülen network.

During his defense statement, former Habertürk TV coordinator Oğuz Usluer pointed out to the lack of clarity of the reports and criticized the court for refusing to send the reports to independent experts. Data regarding the location, the time and the IP number of ByLock connections were highly inconsistent in the report sent by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) and the log report prepared by the Police Department. Some data were humanly absurd, Usluer said, such as being connected to the application for more than 24 hours in a day. “According to the report, I enter the tunnel on the TEM highway near the War Academy at 3.52 a.m. and remain there until 8 a.m. in the morning connecting 550 times to ByLock,” Usluer said.

Similarly, Ufuk Şanlı, former economy editor of daily Millet, said BTK’s report showed 1,258 connections to ByLock while the Police Department’s report only showed eight connections. “So, what are the remaining 1250 connections” he asked. Lawyer Barış Topuk said the report failed to establish data beyond reasonable doubt. “The court should not declare a verdict without removing the doubts concerning the ByLock use. If there is a doubt, the defendant should be the one benefitting from it,” he said.

The trial became highly controversial after 12 defendants had been detained hours after their release on March 31, 2017 and arrested after two weeks. The judges’ panel which had ruled for their release was dismissed and a new panel was appointed.

The court is now bound to announce its reasoned judgment within fifteen days, following which the verdict can be appealed in regional courts.

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