Hikmet Çetinkaya, a well-known columnist for the Cumhuriyet daily, is also on the executive board of the Cumhuriyet Foundation.
The 74-year-old journalist was taken into custody on October 31, 2016, as part of an investigation into the journalists and executives of the Cumhuriyet newspaper. According to a statement from the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office made on the same day as Çetinkaya’s arrest, the Cumhuriyet Foundation executives were investigated for “committing offenses on behalf of the PKK/KCK and FETÖ/PDY terrorist organizations without being a member of these organizations, based on allegations and indications that they supported the PKK/KCK and FETÖ/PDY terrorist organizations; an unlawful executive board decision issued during a board meeting regarding the voting on admission to foundation; publication of content legitimizing the coup preceding the July 15 coup attempt.”
After his statement was taken at the Prosecutor’s Office, Çetinkaya was referred to the Istanbul 9th Criminal Judgeship of Peace with a demand for his release on judicial control considering his age and his health condition. On November 5, 2016, the Judgeship issued a decision that Çetinkaya be released on judicial control.
The major evidence in the indictment on which the terrorism-related allegations against Çetinkaya are based are as follows: Communication records showing contacts with seven people who are ByLock users or subject to investigation on terrorism charges; having attended a breakfast hosted by the shuttered Journalists and Writers Assocation, known to be linked with the Fethullah Gülen movement which is alleged to be the perpetrators of the July 15 coup attempt and referred officially as the “FETÖ/PDY armed terrorist organization,” and having been photographed arm in arm with the former president of the said association; witness accounts as to a recent shift in his critical stance toward the Gülen movement; his acting in concert with the other suspects who came to the newspaper’s management after 2013 and made “radical changes” in the newspaper’s editorial policy thereafter.
As to his executive board membership in the foundation, the allegations against Çetinkaya include “a loan to an already debt-stricken company” and causing company loss through the sale of a property. Çetinkaya faces imprisonment between two to 14 years on these allegations.
The court case against Çetinkaya and 18 other suspects in the indictment began on July 24, 2017, at the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court.
Çetinkaya, who testified on the fourth day of the trial, on July 27, said in his defense statement: “Based on the views that I had expressed, Fethullah Gülen was prosecuted for establishing and running a criminal organization. Now through an indictment prepared by prosecutors who have forgotten about the past, I am being prosecuted on charges of aiding and abetting the FETÖ terrorist organization.”
In an interim decision rendered at the end of the five-day hearing, the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court ruled that seven of the 12 suspects, 11 of whom are Cumhuriyet employees, be released from detention. The trial was adjourned to September 11, 2017, and the court ruled that the suspects who had already delivered their statements would be exempted from the future hearings.
The second hearing of the trial was held on September 11 at the courtroom within the Silivri Prison premises. A detailed report regarding the trial, in which no new release decisions were rendered, can be reached here.
The third hearing was held on September 25 at the Çağlayan courthouse. Three suspects delivered statements during the hearing, in which Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel was released pending judgment.
During the fourth hearing, held on October 31, digital forensics expert Tuncay Beşikçi testified in relation to ByLock, an encrypted communication application that authorities say was used exclusively by members of the Fethullah Gülen network. During the hearing, a new piece of evidence was introduced by the investigating prosecutor despite objection from defense attorneys. The session concluded without any new release orders.
The hearing scheduled for December 25 and 26 was concluded earlier than expected after Ahmet Şık’s defense statement was cut short on grounds that it was “political” and Şık was removed from the courtroom. On the first day, after the presiding judge had Şık expelled from the courtroom on grounds that he “disrupted the order of the proceedings,” Cumhuriyet’s lawyers filed for a recusal. The panel of judges then decided that it would not be possible to hear the two witnesses who were expected to testify during the hearing and went on to issue an interim ruling, ordering the continuation of detention of the defendants on remand, and of the judicial control measures imposed on the other defendants in the case, setting 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 Çetinkaya, are convicted on the charge of “aiding an armed organization without being its member.”
The court announced its verdict at the final hearing on held on April 24-25, 2018, convicting 14 Cumhuriyet columnists and executives, including Çetinkaya, of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” Çetinkaya was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison.
All of the defendants charged with “abuse of authority” in the indictment were acquitted of that charge while the court ruled to impose judicial control measures on all of the defendants who were handed down prison sentences.
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.
Hikmet Çetinkaya, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, 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.