The former responsible managing editor of the shuttered daily Zaman has been in pre-trial detention for 10 months

Harun Çümen, the former responsible managing editor of the shuttered daily Zaman, on 8 January appeared before an Istanbul court for the first hearing of his trial on the charge of “membership in a terrorist group.”

The hearing, monitored by P24, was the first time Çümen was appearing in court since his arrest 10 months ago.

Çümen, who worked for Zaman for 21 years as a reporter and editor for the newspaper’s economy news desk, is accused of “membership in the Fethullahist terrorist organization [FETÖ],” accused by the government of orchestrating the coup attempt of 15 July 2016. His trial is overseen by the 32nd High Criminal Court of Istanbul.

Addressing the court from the Balıkesir Prison via the judicial video-conferencing system SEGBİS during the hearing, Çümen said that he never became a member of the Gülen network and denied all the accusations against him. He claimed that the newspaper appointed him as responsible managing editor – who are invested with the legal responsibility of the media organization according to the Turkish Press Law and who represent the entity during trials — because he was precisely not a member of the network.

“I had to accept the position because of the risk of unemployment in our sector,” Çümen told the court. “I tried very hard to abandon that position after 17 December [2013],” he added, referring to the graft probe that is also billed by the government as a “coup attempt.”

Çümen said that the fact he didn’t have ByLock, an encrypted messaging application claimed to have been exclusively used by the members of the Gülen group, was proof that he was not part of the network.

Çümen was arrested 10 months ago in the town of Keşan, near the Turkish-Greek border. He was accused of attempting to flee the country, which he refused.

“There wasn’t an investigation against me. Why would I flee?” he asked, adding that he visited the area regularly as his brother-in-law lived in a village nearby. At the time of his arrest, he had also been trading olive oil, he said, a job he started doing after becoming unable to continue his journalistic career.

“Hadn’t I gone to Keşan, I wouldn’t be accused of being a member of a terror organization. I have been thinking about this bizarre situation for 311 days,” Çümen said.

He added that the authorities initially accused him of “human trafficking.” “This is a proof of the inconsistency of the allegations brought against me.”

Çümen was arrested alone. However, he is standing trial along with three other defendants, whom he said he never met before.

Addressing the court following Çümen, his lawyer Gökçen Yaşar said he accompanied the journalist in around 100 lawsuits against Zaman during his time as the paper’s responsible managing editor and asked, “Why was it that during those trials nobody claimed that Çümen was a member of terrorist group?”

In its interim decision at the end of the hearing, the 32nd High Criminal Court of Istanbul ordered the continuation of Çümen’s pre-trial detention and set 28 March 2019 as the date for the second hearing in the case.