Imprisoned Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and reporter Ahmet Şık released on judicial control terms as major trial nears its end

Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and reporter Ahmet Şık were released on March 9, 2018, after spending more than 400 days in pre-trial detention at the Silivri Prison in Istanbul.

At the end of the 12-hour hearing, monitored by P24 in the courtroom, the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul ruled for the release of Sabuncu and Şık pending the conclusion of the trial while ordering the continuation of the detention of Akın Atalay, the chairman of the newspaper’s executive board.

The court also set March 16 as the date of the next hearing, during which the prosecutor is expected to submit his final opinion.

Both Sabuncu and Şık face up to 15 years in prison on charges of “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being its member” as part of the case. Atalay faces up to 43 years in prison due to the additional charge of “misconduct.”

Sabuncu: It’s not just us who were imprisoned

A huge crowd gathered in front of the Silivri Prison premises on Friday night to greet Sabuncu and Şık upon their release. However, instead of being released at the prison premises, the journalists were brought to a nearby highway stopover. In their first statements after their release, both journalists called for solidarity with other jailed journalists.

“It wasn’t just us who were imprisoned [on account of our] opinions. Journalists, lawyers, deputies, rights defenders still remain in prison. Just because we’re now out of prison doesn’t mean that all of Turkey’s problems have been solved,” Sabuncu said. “Our task as journalists is to continue working fearlessly like we used to as part of this ongoing struggle for [our] rights,” he said.

Echoing Sabuncu’s remarks, Şık also said that their release was not a day for celebration. Rather than rejoicing at their release, Şık said he would “prefer everyone to be angry.” “Anger is what keeps us standing,” he said, adding: “It was again in March, six years ago, when I was released from this very prison. … Between then and now, the only thing that has changed is that one of the partners in fascism is now gone. There will be a day in this country when we will rejoice, for this mafia rule will eventually come to an end.”

Witnesses heard

During the hearing, five witnesses testified over allegations that Cumhuriyet’s editorial policy was altered in support of the Fethullah Gülen movement after the new editorial board took over. Mehmet Faraç, a former columnist for Cumhuriyet, who now writes for the ultranationalist Aydınlık newspaper, claimed that one of his articles had been censored and that it was the reason why he was fired from Cumhuriyet.

Cumhuriyet lawyer Fikret İlkiz objected to Faraç’s accusations, saying: “Faraç claims that he was fired due to his article titled ‘Kubilay.’ The reason why he was laid off was not his article but that he dragged a female reporter by her hair.”

Veteran journalist Altan Öymen and the chairman of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK), Kani Beko, testified in favor of Cumhuriyet, telling the court that the newspaper’s editorial policy has never been supportive of the Gülen movement.

The presiding judge refused to hear Rıza Türmen, a former European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judge, as a witness concerning the defense lawyers’ claims that ECtHR rulings were used in the indictment out of their context by the prosecution.

The chief judge also refused the request to include in the case file the Constitutional Court’s January 11 judgments concerning the imprisoned journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay, which held that the rights of the journalists had been violated due to their lengthy detentions on remand, on grounds that the rulings were “not binding.”

A total of 20 defendants, 18 of whom are Cumhuriyet journalists and employees, face charges as part of the trial. Ten of the defendants, including columnist Kadri Gürsel, reader representative Güray Öz, cartoonist Musa Kart, columnist Hakan Kara, lawyers Bülent Utku and Mustafa Kemal Güngör, and book supplement editor Turhan Günay, have been released in previous hearings. Emre İper, an accountant for the newspaper who was accused of being a ByLock user, an encrypted messaging application allegedly used by the members of the Fethullah Gülen movement, was released after his name appeared on a list of people who had been erroneously detected as ByLock users.

Five other Cumhuriyet columnists and employees face charges as part of the trial: Columnists Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya and Orhan Erinç, chief accountant Günseli Özaltay and former chief accountant Bülent Yener.

Can Dündar, the newspaper’s former editor-in-chief before Sabuncu, and İlhan Tanır, a former Cumhuriyet journalist, are also among the defendants but do not appear at hearings because they live abroad.

The last defendant in the case, Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, purported to be the owner of the Twitter account “Jeansbiri,” was ordered to remain in detention on remand. Although not being related with the newspaper, Aydoğdu’s case was merged with the Cumhuriyet trial during the prosecution phase.