Bülent Utku, one of the lawyers of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, is also on the board of the Cumhuriyet Foundation. Utku was taken into police custody on October 31, 2016, as part of an operation targeting Cumhuriyet journalists and executives for “supporting the PKK/KCK and FETÖ/PDY terror organization.”
Utku and eight others who were in custody were put under formal arrest on November 5, 2016, by a ruling of the Istanbul 9th Criminal Judgeship of Peace on suspicion of “committing a crime on behalf of a terrorist organization without being its member.”
An indictment into Utku and other Cumhuriyet executives and journalists was later accepted by the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court. The indictment accuses Utku of “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being its member” and “abusing one’s position.” On the basis of these accusations, the prosecutor seeks between 9.5 to 29 years in prison for Utku.
As is the case with the other Cumhuriyet defendants, the evidence against Utku are his call history records, showing that he had phone communication records with seven people who downloaded and used ByLock — an encrypted messaging application allegedly used exclusively by members of the Fethullah Gülen network, officially called “FETÖ/PDY” and blamed for being behind the July 15 coup attempt. Additionally, Utku had phone conversations with six people who are being investigated in “FETÖ/PDY related” probes.
The prosecutor also states that a “radical change” took place in Cumhuriyet’s editorial policy, and that Utku acted together with the suspects who were behind this change and that he is legally liable for the newspaper’s editorial line.
The prosecutor seeks between two to 14 years in prison for Utku on charges of causing financial damage to the foundation in his role as an executive.
Lawyers for 10 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.” 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.
Utku and the other Cumhuriyet journalists and executives appeared before judges at the first hearing of their trial at the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court on July 24-28, 2017.
Testifying on day two of the hearing, Utku said: “A change in the editorial policy of the newspaper is a matter that concerns the readers, not prosecutors.” Utku, who also faces charges of “abuse of trust” said such an allegation should be tried at a civil court of law and not a criminal court.
The full text of Utku’s defense statement (in Turkish) can be read here.
On July 28, the court announced its interim decision to release seven of those in prison, including Utku, pending completion of trial. He and the other defendants released from prison are barred from traveling abroad.
The following hearings in the trial were held on September 11, 2017 and September 25, when the court ruled for Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel’s release pending the conclusion of the trial and the continued detention of the rest of his co-defendants.
The fourth hearing in the trial was held on October 31, 2017.
The fifth hearing in the case was held on December 25, 2017, and cut short when journalist Ahmet Şık was expelled from the courtroom after the judge said his defense statement was “political.” The Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court later ruled that Şık and all other imprisoned defendants in the case remain behind bars pending trial and set March 9, 2018, as the date of the next hearing.
At the end of the March 9 hearing, reporter Ahmet Şık and editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu were released from pretrial detention 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 Utku, are convicted on charges of “aiding an armed organization without being its member.”
The defendants presented their final defense statements at the following hearing of the case, which were held on April 24-25, in Silivri. On April 25, the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul announced its verdict, convicting 14 Cumhuriyet journalists and executives, including Utku, of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” Utku was sentenced to four years and six months in prison but he remains free pending the outcome of appeal. The court ruled to impose judicial control measures on all defendants in the case who were handed down prison sentences. All of the defendants charged with “abuse of authority” in the indictment were acquitted of that charge.
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.
While Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Murat Sabuncu and Orhan Erinç can appeal the verdict with the Supreme Court of Appeals, eight of the defendants in the case, including Bülent Utku, will have to return to prison to serve the remainder of the sentences they were imposed since prison terms under five years cannot be appealed further once they are upheld by an appellate court.
Constitutional Court application
On 26 April 2019, the Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would take up Utku’s individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine journalists, including his co-defendants in the Cumhuriyet trial, Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Kadri Gürsel and Önder Çelik, on 2 May 2019.
At the end of the first day of deliberations, the court rejected the applications of Bülent Utku, Ahmet Şık, Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu and Önder Çelik, 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.