Five journalists give final defense statements in fifth hearing of Zaman trial as court adjourns case until July

Eleven former columnists and editors of the shuttered Zaman daily on June 7 and 8 appeared before an Istanbul court for the fifth hearing of the case by the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul. The journalists stand accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and the terrorism-related charges of “membership in a terrorist group,” “conducting propaganda for a terrorist group” and “aiding a terrorist organization” in the case.

In its interim ruling at the end of the two-day hearing, the court ordered the continuation of the detention of four of the defendants — columnists Ahmet Turan Alkan, Mümtazer Türköne, editor İbrahim Karayeğen and Zaman’s former Ankara representative Mustafa Ünal. One of the judges on the panel gave a dissenting opinion on that ruling. Recalling Ali Bulaç’s release at the end of the previous hearing on grounds that the nature of the allegations against him could be subject to change, the judge asserted that all jailed defendants in the case should have been released based on the principle of legal equality.

The court also set July 5 and 6 as the dates for the next hearing in the case.

In addition to P24, representatives from the NGOs Article 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Norwegian Embassy in Ankara, the Swedish Consul General in Istanbul, a lawyer from the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC), and representatives from the EU Delegation to Turkey monitored the two-day hearing at the Istanbul Courthouse.

The first day in the hearing got under way with the defense statement of Zaman’s former night shift editor İbrahim Karayeğen, who faces life in prison “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”

Karayeğen told the court that he has been imprisoned for the past 23 months and that the indictment billed his journalistic endeavor as a criminal act. Noting that he worked with Zaman for 12 years, Karayeğen said the newspaper had no ties with any terrorist group throughout that period. He requested that he be acquitted of the charges and released.

Columnist Lale Sarıibrahimoğlu gave her defense statement next. 

The prosecutor seeks prison sentences for Sarıibrahimoğlu and Nuriye Ural on the charge of “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being part of its hierarchical structure.”

“A lifetime of standing up against military tutelage”

Sarıibrahimoğlu told the court that her articles for which she was indicted were from the period when the Fethullah Gülen movement had not yet been branded a “terrorist group” by the government. 

She said the accusations were baseless: “I was placed in jail without even one piece of evidence against me. I am here in relation with coup allegations. As someone who has been against military tutelage her whole life, that the real perpetrators behind [the July 15, 2016 coup attempt] have not been found makes me incredibly sad. I am being unfairly indicted.” 

Sarıibrahimoğlu also told the court that she requested her press card and her passport to be returned.

Columnist Ali Bulaç addressed the court next. Noting that Zaman had been a legitimate media outlet until the day it was closed down, Bulaç said he could neither be accused for having worked there as a columnist, nor for the escape of the newspaper’s editor in chief.

“I am being incriminated based on the newspaper I wrote for,” said Bulaç, adding that the content of his writing was being ignored.

He also said that both the indictment and the prosecutor’s final opinion featured excerpts from his articles that form the basis of the allegations. Instead, Bulaç said, the articles should have been included in their entirety. “I have done nothing but journalism. I would like to remain a man of ideas,” Bulaç said, requesting his acquittal.

Second day of defense statements 

Columnist Ahmet Turan Alkan gave his defense statement on the second day of the hearing.

The prosecutor seeks an aggravated life sentence and an additional 15 years imprisonment for Alkan on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”

Noting that he was among journalists who have spent the longest time in pretrial detention, Alkan said the evidence against him consisted solely of his newspaper columns. 

Alkan said the articles he wrote about the 2013 graft probe, popularly known as “December 17-25,” were the main reason he is standing trial and said the case was politically motivated.

“Don’t expect an apology”

“I suppose I must have irked and infuriated the government. But do not expect me to apologize. I will not even ask to be released from prison. […] I am a Zaman columnist, I am a dissident. I was not a dissident before, but I am now. … I am a writer. I stand behind everything that I wrote, because I wrote none of them on instruction,” Alkan said.

Addressing the court following Alkan, his lawyer Faruk Zorba said his client lost around 30 kilos during his time in prison and had health issues. The lawyer requested additional time to review his final defense statement. He also requested Alkan to be released.

The last defendant addressing the court was Nuriye Ural. Asserting that she has always been against coups and that she has never been involved in any act of violence, Ural said: “Journalism is not a crime. Writing about corruption is a journalistic act. You can only accuse me based on my actions.” Ural requested to be acquitted. Her lawyer requested additional time for the final defense statement.

Announcing its interim ruling following the defense statements, the court rejected all requests for acquittal and the lifting of judicial control measures on the defendants and adjourned the trial until July.

Zaman columnists Mümtazer Türköne, Orhan Kemal Cengiz and Mustafa Ünal and managing editor Mehmet Özdemir had given their defense statements in response to the prosecutor’s final opinion during the previous hearing of the trial on May 10-11.