Ahmet Altan and his five co-defendants now face trial on lesser, terrorism-related charges, instead of “attempting coup”
ÖZGÜN ÖZÇER, İstanbul
The retrial of the “coup” case against six defendants including jailed journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan, his brother, professor of economics and journalist Mehmet Altan and jailed journalist Nazlı Ilıcak commenced 8 October 2019 in Istanbul. This was the first hearing held after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the aggravated life sentences against the six defendants in the case.
Journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan, journalist Nazlı Ilıcak and three other co-defendants –former marketing director of the shuttered newspaper Zaman, Yakup Şimşek, former Zaman art director Fevzi Yazıcı and the Police Academy lecturer and commentator Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül — have been in prison for over three years. Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics and journalist, was released by an appellate court in June 2018 on the basis of a Constitutional Court judgment that said his pre-trial detention amounted to violation of his rights.
All six defendants were given aggravated life sentences for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” by the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court in February 2018. The appellate court upheld the sentences but the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned them, saying Ahmet Altan and Ilıcak should have been charged with “aiding a terrorist organization without being its members” while Yazıcı, Şimşek and Özşengül should have been charged with “membership of a terrorist organization.” The charges carry up to 15 years in jail. For Mehmet Altan, the Supreme Court said he should be acquitted.
Following the Supreme Court of Appeals decision, the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court that handed the aggravated life sentences had to establish first whether to comply with the decision. At Tuesday’s hearing, the court panel heard statements from the prosecutor and the defendants and defense lawyers in response to the Supreme Court decision. The prosecutor requested the court to comply with the decision but also to keep all the imprisoned defendants behind bars pending trial.
At the end of the hearing, the court decided to abide by the Supreme Court of Appeals’ ruling and to keep the five imprisoned defendants in pre-trial detention. The court also ruled to lift the international travel ban on Mehmet Altan. The trial adjourned until 4 November.
Observers from P24, Article 19, Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) were present to monitor the trial. Many were unable to enter as the session was again held at a small courtroom.
Defendant Şimşek expelled from courtroom
Ilıcak was brought to the courtroom from the Bakırköy Women’s Prison where she remains jailed, while Şimşek and Özşengül were brought from the Silivri Prison outside Istanbul. Ahmet Altan and Yazıcı attended the trial via the judicial videoconference system from the Silivri Prison. Mehmet Altan, who was released in June 2018, was also present at the hearing.
The first defendant to be heard at the hearing was Ilıcak, who also asked the court to comply with the ruling handed down by the Supreme Court of Appeals. In a brief statement, Ilıcak suggested the court to also take into consideration the government’s plan of enforcing a judicial reform package. “I have been in detention for more than three years. I’m 75 years old. I demand my release on account of the new charge I face,” Ilıcak said.
Speaking after Ilıcak, Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül said his health issues required being able to regularly visit hospital and asked for his release.
Third defendant to take the floor, Yakup Şimşek, rejected the accusations levelled against him. The court did not pay any attention to their defense statements in the first trial and kept him in detention based on unfounded allegations for 37 months, Şimşek said.
Presiding judge Kemal Selçuk Yalçın warned Şimşek over his criticism of the court and asked him to keep his statements limited to the Supreme Court of Appeals’ ruling. “I leave it to God,” Şimşek replied, after which Yalçın expelled him from the courtroom.
Ahmet Altan: Witnessing the judiciary’s suicide
Following Şimşek’s expulsion, it was jailed journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan’s turn to present his statement to the court. Altan, who chose to make his statements from Silivri Prison via the judicial videoconference system, also strongly criticized the trial court’s attitude during the initial trial. “Since the very beginning of this trial you have been trying to do the impossible, you have been trying to prosecute thought,” Altan said. “It is not possible to achieve this. Because the boundlessness of thought cannot fit into the confines of the judiciary.”
Altan said: “Law draws the limits of the judiciary. When the judiciary goes outside of these limits in order to punish ideas, it clashes with law. We find ourselves in front of a lawless judiciary.
A judiciary in conflict with law — its very purpose of existence — commits suicide by cutting its own life-blood. For the past three years I have been facing a judiciary that is drenched in blood, committing suicide.”
Altan said the court used “absurd justifications that have nothing to do with law” such as “subliminal messages,” “immaterial force,” “abstract threat”, “penning articles at a time when the coup was probable.”
“These, are not judicial justifications, this is the suicide letter of a judiciary,” he said.
The presiding judge Yalçın warned Altan after he said “If this court had sincerely listened to our defense statements, it would not have been dragged into making such a grave mistake like failing to comply with the judgment of the Constitutional Court. It would not have clashed with its purpose of existence.” The judge told him to keep his comments limited to the Supreme Court of Appeals’ ruling. “We have been waiting with patience for three years,” Altan answered. “I’m expecting you to show some patience.”
When Yalçın warned him a second time, Altan closed his statements telling the court “My advice to you today is for you to comply with the law, to not go outside the boundaries of law and to not try to prosecute thought. It’s up to you to follow this advice or not.”
Mehmet Altan: Would you like to stand trial as we did?
Following Ahmet Altan, Fevzi Yazıcı was asked to give his statement in response to the Supreme Court ruling. Sitting next to Altan at the Silivri Prison, Yazıcı made a brief statement through the judiciary’s videoconference system. Yazıcı rejected the accusations brought against him, demanding his release and acquittal.
The only defendant who was released in the case, Mehmet Altan, was last to be heard. Altan said after the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court of Appeals had also ruled that accusations against him were unfounded, adding that the Supreme Court of Appeals had also made it clear that judgments of the Constitutional Court and the European Court were binding.
Altan said the trial court did not follow the key Supreme Court of Appeals case-law while sentencing him and his co-defendants to aggravated life sentences for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”
“How can the panel of a first instance court, particularly of a high criminal court, can misinterpret the case-law of the Supreme Court of Appeals? Did they make such a mistake because their knowledge about the law is inadequate or they are tasked to bear enmity against innocent people whom they don’t know personally?”
“Both options are terrifying, but all said and done they did treat me as an enemy,” Altan continued. “Now I’m asking you: Whilst my innocence was clear from the outset, was this enmity worth it? What did you gain?”
After the chief judge warned him to keep his statement shorter, Mehmet Altan referred to his previous defense statements and asked the court “Would you like to stand trial as we did? Ask your conscience then decide.”
Judge to lawyer: Don’t read out our names
After defendants, the court gave the floor to their lawyers. The presiding judge reacted angrily when Büşra Şimşek, lawyer and also the daughter of imprisoned defendant Yakup Şimşek referred to a mistake in a minutes of hearing proceedings as she was arguing that the panel of judges should withdraw from the case. “You’re accusing the court of lying,” Yalçın told lawyer Şimşek threating with filing a complaint against her to the Bar’s Association and expelling her from the courtroom.
Ahmet Altan’s lawyer Figen Albuga Çalıkuşu rejected the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision to put the novelist on trial for “aiding a terrorist organization.” “Did Ahmet Altan know that the organization in question was a terrorist organization? Was he aware that they were preparing to stage a coup?” she asked. As Çalıkuşu was reminding to court that it refused to implement a Constitutional Court ruling regarding Mehmet Altan and mentioned the three judges composing the panel and the prosecutor by their name, head judge Yalçın interrupted again her statement. Yalçın told her she should not read their names out loud during the proceedings.
The court announced its interim decision following a break of about an hour. It ruled to comply with the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision “that complies with the procedures and the law,” but rejected the demands for release of the five defendants who have been in detention for three years and a month. The court lifted Mehmet Altan’s travel ban but did not acquit him straight away.
The court panel also rejected requests to recuse itself from the case and the demands to expand the investigation, setting 4 November 2019 as the date of the next hearing. Because the next court hearing is less than a month away, the regular monthly review of detention for the imprisoned defendants will not be held before that hearing.
The court also decided to order a medical report assessing health risks for continued detention of Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül.