In its unanimous ruling, court acquits Kadri Gürsel but rules against Supreme Court of Appeals judgment concerning the remaining 12 defendants
Thirteen former columnists and executives of Cumhuriyet daily appeared once again before the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul on 21 November 2019 for the retrial of their case.
The retrial followed on the heels of a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in September 2019, which overturned the majority of the convictions in the original trial and ruled that Akın Atalay, Orhan Erinç, Murat Sabuncu, Aydın Engin and Hikmet Çetinkaya should be acquitted and that Ahmet Şık should instead be charged with “terrorism propaganda” and “denigrating the bodies and organs of the state of the Turkish Republic.” The high court had also ruled for a stay of execution concerning the defendants who were sentenced to prison terms less than five years, which, before the recent Judicial Reform Package, could not be appealed further once they were upheld by an appellate court.
P24 monitored the retrial, which was also observed by representatives from Article 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Human Rights Watch, DİSK Basın İş, the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), and other rights groups and press freedom organizations.
Cumhuriyet’s former Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, columnists Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Kadri Gürsel, Hakan Kara, investigative reporter Ahmet Şık, cartoonist Musa Kart, ombudsman Güray Öz, former Cumhuriyet Foundation executives Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay, Bülent Utku, Mustafa Kemal Güngör and Önder Çelik were present in the courtroom for the hearing. They were accompanied by their lawyers.
Prosecutor asks court to insist on original verdict
Early in the hearing, the prosecutor presented his opinion, asking the court to rule against the Supreme Court of Appeals judgment and insist on its earlier verdict in the original trial, which concluded in April 2018.
The court had convicted 15 of the 20 defendants in the case of terrorism-related charges at the end of the original trial. Thirteen former Cumhuriyet executives and journalists were convicted of “aiding a terrorist group without being its member”; Emre İper, an accounting department employee, was convicted of “terrrorism propaganda”; Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, who is not a Cumhuriyet staffer, but is purported to be the user of the Twitter account “JeansBiri,” was convicted of “leading a terrorist organization.” Bülent Yener, Günseli Özaltay and Turhan Günay were acquitted of all charges while the files of journalists Can Dündar and İlhan Tanır were separated.
Addressing the court following the prosecutor, all 13 defendants and their lawyers requested the court to abide by the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling.
Court hears last words before announcing its decision regarding Supreme Court ruling
After hearing the defense statements, the presiding judge asked the defendants for their last words before the panel’s verdict. Defendants and defense lawyers objected to the court, saying this was against the Criminal Procedure Code and that the panel should declare its decision on whether to comply with the higher court’s ruling first.
Following a brief recess for deliberation, the panel ruled to proceed with hearing the last words of the defendants before the announcement of the verdict along with their decision on whether to comply with the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling. The panel cited “criminal procedure economics” and “the principle of judicial independence” as the grounds for their decision.
Defense lawyers objected to the decision, demanding the recusal of the panel for bias. The court rejected the request, saying it was “aimed at prolonging the proceedings.”
In their last words, all defendants asked the court once again to abide by the higher court’s ruling and requested to be acquitted.
One defendant acquitted, 12 convicted
Announcing its verdict at the end of the hearing, the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul ruled partially in line with the prosecutor’s opinion.
In its unanimous ruling, the court acquitted Kadri Gürsel but ruled against the Supreme Court of Appeals judgment concerning the rest of the defendants: Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, Bülent Utku, Güray Öz, Hakan Kara, Musa Kart, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Murat Sabuncu, Orhan Erinç, Mustafa Kemal Güngör and Önder Çelik.
The court convicted all 12 of the charge in the original trial — “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” — and ruled for the continuation of the judicial control measures imposed on the defendants.
The original trial
Cumhuriyet newspaper executives and columnists were taken into custody on 31 October 2016 on the allegation of “aiding the PKK/KCK and FETÖ/PDY terrorist groups.” On 5 November 2016, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, columnist Kadri Gürsel, cartoonist Musa Kart, executives and columnists Önder Çelik, Bülent Utku, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Güray Öz, Hakan Kara and Turhan Günay were jailed pending trial. Akın Atalay, who was abroad during the operation, was arrested upon his arrival in Istanbul on 11 November 2016 and jailed pending trial the next day. Investigative reporter Ahmet Şık was jailed pending trial on 30 December 2016. The indictment issued on 4 April 2017 held 106 news reports and 149 tweet messages as evidence against the defendants.
At the end of the trial, the court convicted 14 columnists and executives of Cumhuriyet daily as well as the only defendant in the case who is not a media worker of terrorism-related charges. Three former Cumhuriyet staffers were acquitted and the files of two defendants at large were separated.
In February 2019, the 3rd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice, an appellate court, rejected the appeals against the convictions, saying it had not found “any substantial or procedural violations” in the ruling or any “shortcomings in the evidence or proceedings.” The appellate court’s ruling finalized the prison sentences for eight defendants (Utku, Gürsel, Öz, Çelik, Kart, Kara, Güngör and İper), who were sentenced to prison terms less than five years.
The Constitutional Court took up the individual applications of the defendants in May, ruling that Kadri Gürsel’s “right to liberty and security had been violated” while rejecting the applications of Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık, Önder Çelik, Güray Öz, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara, Mustafa Kemal Güngör and Bülent Utku.
On 12 September 2019, the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the convictions against Atalay, Erinç, Sabuncu, Engin, Çetinkaya and Şık. Separately, the Chamber ruled for a stay of execution concerning Gürsel, Çelik, Utku, Öz, Kart, Kara and Güngör and remitted the case file to the trial court. The high court upheld the convictions against İper and Aydoğdu and the acquittals of Bülent Yener, Günseli Özaltay and Turhan Günay.