Expression Interrupted

Journalists and academics bear the brunt of the massive crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey. Scores of them are currently subject to criminal investigations or behind bars. This website is dedicated to tracking the legal process against them.

Court convicts Cumhuriyet journalists of “aiding terrorist organization”

Court convicts Cumhuriyet journalists of “aiding terrorist organization”

14 columnists and executives of the paper handed down prison sentences varying between 2.5 years and 8 years, 1 month and 15 days


Fourteen columnists and executives of Cumhuriyet daily were convicted of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” at the final hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial on 25 April 2018, held at a courtroom inside the Silivri Prison compound.

The 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul handed down prison sentences varying between 2 years and 6 months and 8 years, 1 month and 15 days to 14 of the newspaper’s columnists and executives standing trial in the case, while acquitting three of the defendants and separating the files of two journalists from the case.

The court handed down the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, reporter Ahmet Şık and the 77-year-old veteran columnist Aydın Engin seven-and-a-half years in prison each, while Akın Atalay, the chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation's executive board, was sentenced to 8 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison, the lengthiest sentence in the verdict. The court ruled to release Atalay, who spent more than 500 days in pretrial detention as part of the case, awaiting the appeal process.

Orhan Erinç, an 82-year-old veteran journalist, who is the president of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, and columnist Hikmet Çetinkaya were each handed down 6 years and 3 months in prison.

Columnist Kadri Gürsel was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months, while cartoonist Musa Kart, columnist Hakan Kara, reader representative Güray Öz, executive board members Önder Çelik and Mustafa Kemal Güngör were sentenced to 3 years and 9 months.

The newspaper’s attorney Bülent Utku was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months while accounting department employee Emre İper was sentenced to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison.

Turhan Günay, the editor of the newspaper’s book supplement, was acquitted of both the “abuse of authority” and the “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” charges. Günay had spent 272 days in pretrial detention before his release in 2017. Accountants Bülent Yener and Günseli Özaltay were also acquitted.

All of the defendants charged with “abuse of authority” in the indictment were acquitted of that charge.

Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, who is not a Cumhuriyet staffer but is purported to be the user of the Twitter account with the handle “JeansBiri” and charged with “leading a terrorist organization,” was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The court ruled for the continuation of his detention.

The court ruled to impose judicial control measures on all of the defendants who were given prison sentences.

The 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul also ruled to separate the files of Can Dündar and İlhan Tanır, who are still at large.

The second day of the hearing began with defense lawyers’ closing remarks.

Duygun Yarsuvat, defense attorney for Cumhuriyet Executive Board Chairperson Akın Atalay, said in his address to the court that the case was politically motivated, adding: “There is nothing in this indictment that can be handled through principles of criminal law. The rule of law has been sacrificed in this case, designed to silence Cumhuriyet.”

Also criticizing the expert opinion submitted to the case file, Yarsuvat said the experts drafted their reports using information readily available in open sources. Yarsuvat also said that one of the experts had proved in a Tweet he had posted that he was an admirer of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, adding: “This expert does not hold an academic title. His only significance is being a member of a foundation headed by Bilal Erdoğan.”

Yarsuvat also touched upon Article 220/7 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), on which the accusations against Cumhuriyet columnists and executives rest. Yarsuvat said the term “aiding” in the charge of “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member” meant “providing material aid,” adding, “We cannot modify articles of the penal code in order to please those in power.”

Yarsuvat said the prosecutor attempted to prove his allegation that “the newspaper’s editorial policy had been changed” through witness testimonies based on hearsay.

He also said Atalay and Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu to have attended the Abant Platform meetings, organized by the Gülen network-affiliated Gazeteci ve Yazarlar Vakfı (Journalists and Writers Association), were held as evidence against both Atalay and Sabuncu. "Is it a crime that they attended those meetings? Burhan Kuzu, Cemil Çiçek and Fehmi Koru were among participants too. Why haven’t these meetings, held since 1997, been banned then?" he asked.

Speaking after Yarsuvat, defense attorney Abbas Yalçın told the court that despite a confidentiality order to have been issued on the investigation file, the information contained in the file were leaked to pro-government media outlets.

Lawyer Tora Pekin said that Cumhuriyet had been already overwhelmed with countless court decisions ordering the newspaper to publish retractions, decisions to ban access to news reports and criminal cases brought against its journalists, but even then no one had thought of a court case where Cumhuriyet journalists would be charged with aiding three different terrorist organizations.

Pekin said the defendants and lawyers were giving statements for the past two days knowing that the court was unlikely to rule for acquittal, but added that it was still important to make these statements as they would be put on record. “You cannot commit an unlawful act through publications that are lawful. You cannot find any word that recommends or praises violence in the news reports and articles published in Cumhuriyet because there isn’t any,” Pekin said.

Commenting on the news reports and articles included in the case file, Pekin said they consist of those which criticize government actions such as those about interception of Syria-bound trucks carrying arms, and those about the Kurdish issue. “Talking about certain issues disturbs the government, so it is a crime!” he said, adding that the prosecutor was of the view that Cumhuriyet could not publish any critical reports on the Kurdish issue because it was a “nationalist, statist and traditionalist newspaper.”

Pekin also recalled that, according to law, the statute of limitations to file charges in connection with news reports was four months after publication. “This limit was introduced to ensure the journalists will not feel under pressure all the time. Otherwise, anyone can be prosecuted any time for a tweet they posted or an article they wrote any time in the past,” he said.

Responding to the accusations stemming from the fact that Cumhuriyet had used the same headlines in a few occasions with the shuttered Zaman daily that was affiliated with the now-banned Gülen network, Pekin said it was now a common occurrence in Turkey that about 10 newspapers use the same headline for the same story, but when Cumhuriyet uses the same headline with Zaman in a couple of instances, it is considered an anomaly.

Speaking after Pekin, defense attorney Fikret İlkiz said in his address to the court that the prosecutor alleged that Cumhuriyet had “actively aided terrorist organizations from 2013 up until the coup attempt of July 15, 2016.” “So why didn't you press charges back then?” İlkiz asked.

“Journalists and lawyers standing trial in this case are being criminalized for being journalists and lawyers. The very existence of this newspaper is considered a crime. The fact that no documents to indict my clients to have come up during searches on their homes is considered a crime,” İlkiz said.

Defendants’ last words 

Following the defense attorneys, the court asked the defendants to make their closing speeches before a recess ahead of the verdict. Below is what they said.

Akın Atalay: Whatever the verdict, we would like everyone to know that Cumhuriyet newspaper and we Cumhuriyet staff will never give up our fight against malice. We will fight until our last breath to prevent malice from becoming routine in this society.

Kadri Gürsel: We have been jailed because we are journalists. We have been presented with a crumbling, hollow, baseless indictment. Our lengthy pretrial detention turned into the execution of a penalty. Our right to fair trial has been violated. During my defense statement I defended my occupation and answered the allegations which I think are absurd. Now you are facing a tough decision. Because you will render a judgment based on a case file that includes no evidence. Which means, you will be issuing your verdict using your reason and your conscience. And I believe you will do so. I do not want to regret this belief. We will leave this courtroom with dignity and continue doing our jobs. I request our acquittal.

Güray Öz: Journalism is being put on trial in this case -- which is a tough task. Accusing Cumhuriyet newspaper of [helping] a terrorist organization and of being FETÖ’ists is beyond all reason. I hope this does not turn out to be the case.

Murat Sabuncu: Being free is such a delightful thing [but] one only comes to appreciate when one loses it. Cumhuriyet journalists have always spoken the truth, no matter the circumstances. Journalism is not a crime.

Turhan Günay: Journalism is not a crime.

Aydın Engin: You had once told me that I had “the spirit of James Bond,” which I had taken as a compliment. But on second thought, I figured Bond was at the service of her majesty, whereas I am at the service of the public. The public’s right to access to information is being put on trial in this case. And you are obliged to defend the public’s right to access to information; it’s a tough task, but I cannot be of help, you’ll do it on your own.

Hikmet Çetinkaya: I wrote for years in Cumhuriyet about who Fethullah Gülen really was and his purpose. I am now accused of helping Gülen, and I reject all the accusations. Journalism is not a crime. The real crime is attempting to establish sharia rule.

Orhan Erinç: I saved my final speech for our lawyers: I would like to express my gratitude to our defense lawyers.

Mustafa Kemal Güngör: An unfair treatment on one person is an unfair treatment on the entire society. Stop this unfair treatment that has been going on for months. 

Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu: I am mostly affected by the feeling of longing. Put an end to my longing for my daughter.

Ahmet Şık: This is just the beginning. The purpose of this setup perpetrated by a gang formed by some of the members of political, bureaucratic and media circles, was clear from day one. Then, on behalf of those who have been standing against unlawfulness and violation of rights for their entire lives, let’s respond to this gang by repeating what we’ve been saying all along: It’s you who should surrender.