Cumhuriyet Foundation Executive Board President Akın Atalay was taken into police custody on November 11, 2016 as part of an operation targeting the Cumhuriyet newspaper’s executives and columnists. Atalay was abroad when a capture warrant was first issued for him. He was detained by police at the airport as he entered the country on his way back from Germany. On November 12, he was sent to Silivri Prison based on an arrest warrant issued by the Istanbul 9th Criminal Judgeship of Peace.
When interviewed by the prosecutor, Atalay was mostly asked questions about the newspaper’s editorial policy. Cumhuriyet at the time reported that among the questions he was asked were “whether any individuals connected to or affiliated with the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure (FETÖ/PDY) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party/Kurdistan Communities’ Union (PKK/KCK) have ever given directions regarding the newspaper’s editorial policy or about the news stories published in the newspaper; “whether [Atalay] has written any columns that were in praise or support of FETÖ/PDY or PKK/KCK armed terrorist organizations.” He was also asked several questions on articles by some of the newspaper’s columnists and some headlines of the daily. Atalay, in response, said the investigation was not fair or lawful, and stated that he will not respond to the prosecutor’s “irrational, illogical and unserious” questions.
In its arrest ruling for Atalay, the Istanbul 9th Criminal Judgeship of Peace claimed that many news reports, stories and front-page reports published in Cumhuriyet included expressions that could be considered “FETÖ and PKK propaganda.”
In the indictment which was prepared in the aftermath of the arrests, the prosecutor asked for 11.5 to 43 years for Atalay on charges of “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being its member” and “abuse of trust entrusted because of a service.” The indictment lists 17 other executives and employees of the newspaper as well as a teacher claimed to be the user of an anonymous Twitter account as suspects.
The prosecutor based his allegations directed at Atalay on phone conversations he had had with six individuals who used the chat application ByLock — allegedly the secret communications tool of the Fethullah Gülen network, which Turkish authorities say was behind the July 15 coup — and on some of his social media posts. The indictment claims that Atalay had reached the “top position” in the newspaper, and that he had serious impact on the newspaper’s editorial policy, which he used “to support the psychological operations of terrorist organizations to manage public perception.”
Other accusations directed at Atalay were that he caused “the company to register increasingly larger losses” and that he caused the company “to be dragged into a mire of debt.”
Meanwhile, lawyers for 10 Cumhuriyet journalists and executives, including Atalay, applied to the European Court of Human Rights in March 2017, 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.” In June, the court revealed that it has asked the Turkish government to respond to a set of questions pertaining to the rights violations complaints raised in the application until October 2, 2017.
In his defense statement during the first hearing of the trial, held at the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court on July 24-18, 2017, Atalay responded to the accusation that the newspaper’s policy changed “radically” after 2013 as well as allegations concerning certain financial transactions. Atalay stated the newspaper’s editorial policy hadn’t changed, but said courts cannot be the venues for such a discussion even if it had. He said: “In democratic societies evaluating, measuring and identifying editorial policy and turning it into basis for allegations is not a right prosecutors have; and nor are they in any position to make such a judgment.”
For an English translation of Atalay’s court statement from July 24, 2017, click here.
The court ruled at the end of the first hearing on July 28 to keep Atalay and four other defendants behind bars, while releasing seven others pending completion of trial.
The second hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial was held on September 11, 2017 at the 27 High Criminal Court of Istanbul in Silivri. In its interim ruling at the end of the session, the court decided that Atalay remains in pre-trial detention. The ruling was in keeping with the prosecutor’s request, who had asked for continued imprisonment of the suspects on the grounds that the suspects might “obscure evidence” and are at “flight risk.”
At the third hearing on September 25, 2017, three witnesses testified and the court ordered the release of columnist Kadri Gürsel, while ordering the continuation of the detention of Atalay and the other co-defendants.
The 27th High Criminal Court held the fourth hearing in the case on October 31, 2017, when it issued yet another interim ruling, ordering the continued detention of Atalay and others.
On December 25, 2017, the fifth hearing in Atalay’s case was cut short when his co-defendant Ahmet Şık was expelled from the courtroom after the presiding judge said his defense statement was “political” and would not be allowed. In response, Akın Atalay refused to present his defense statement. The defense lawyers also demanded the recusal of the judges, saying they are no longer impartial. The presiding judge then said that, under the law, the court can only deal with matters requiring urgent attention and should not continue with proceedings since a motion for recusal has been filed. The court then issued an interim ruling, stating that the motion for recusal would be referred to the 28th High Criminal Court of Istanbul and that none of the imprisoned defendants would be released, and set 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 pending the conclusion of the trial after spending more than 400 days in pre-trial detention at the Silivri Prison in Istanbul. 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 Atalay, are convicted on charges of “aiding an armed organization without being its member.”
The court announced its verdict at the final hearing held on April 24-25, 2018, convicting 14 Cumhuriyet columnists and executives, including Atalay, of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” Atalay was sentenced to 8 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison, the highest prison term given to a Cumhuriyet defendant in the case, but the court ruled to release him pending the outcome of appeal.
All of the defendants charged with “abuse of authority” in the indictment were acquitted of that charge while the court imposed judicial control measures on Atalay and all the other defendants who were handed down prison sentences.
You can read the full indictment into Cumhuriyet journalists and executives here (in Turkish).
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.
Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Murat Sabuncu and Orhan Erinç can further appeal the verdict with the Supreme Court of Appeals since the prison terms they have been imposed are longer than five years.
Constitutional Court application
On 26 April 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would take up Atalay’s individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine journalists, including his co-defendants in the Cumhuriyet trial, Ahmet Şık, Murat Sabuncu, Kadri Gürsel and Önder Çelik, on 2 May 2019.
At the end of the first day of deliberations, the court rejected the applications of Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık, Önder Çelik and Bülent Utku, while it ruled that Kadri Gürsel’s pre-trial detention violated his right to personal liberty and security. The court rendered all decisions through a majority vote.