Murat Sabuncu, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet and one of the seven founders of Punto24 Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), was arrested on October 31, 2016, along with nearly a dozen staff members and members of the executive board of the foundation that publishes the daily.
A statement from the prosecutor’s office said the journalists were arrested on the grounds of spreading propaganda for the PKK and what authorities call FETÖ/PDY, both regarded as terrorist groups by the government. The statement also cited alleged irregularities concerning election of members of the board of Cumhuriyet Foundation.
On November 5, 2016, Sabuncu and eight other Cumhuriyet journalists were jailed pending trial on charges of “conducting activities on behalf of FETÖ/PDY without being a member” and “serving its objectives” with his tweets and headlines and articles published in Cumhuriyet. He faces up to 15 years in prison on the charge of “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being its member.”
According to the indictment into Sabuncu and other Cumhuriyet executives and journalists, Sabuncu’s Twitter posts and records of communication showing he somehow contacted or was contacted by people who have been investigated over terror links or allegedly used ByLock, a smart phone messaging application that the authorities say was used exclusively by members of the Fethullah Gülen group that is referred to as the “FETÖ/PDY terrorist organization” and accused of leading the July 15, 2016, coup attempt.
Lawyers for 10 Cumhuriyet journalists and executives, including Sabuncu, applied to the European Court of Human Rights in March, more than three months after filing an application with Turkey’s Constitutional Court for their release on the grounds that their detention constitutes rights violations. The European court notified the lawyers in April that although their application is not given formal priority treatment under Rules of Court, it will be discussed “as soon as possible.” In June, the court revealed that it has asked the Turkish government to respond to a set of questions pertaining to the rights violations complaints raised in the application until October 2, 2017.
Sabuncu, for whom the prosecution seeks up to 15 years in prison, appeared before judges for the first time on July 24-28, during the first hearing of the Cumhuriyet trial.
Sabuncu, who was scheduled to testify on the first day of the trial but was unable to do so as correctional officers at Silivri Prison seized his notes, spoke on the second day of the trial. He said: “The price of independent journalism in Turkey is imprisonment, then waiting for your indictment in a cell for five months and waiting for an entire nine months for a chance to be able to defend oneself.”
Responding to one of the accusations stemming from headlines used by the newspaper, Sabuncu said: “There is no need to explain the headline ‘Start of the witch hunt.’ Here we are, standing right in front of you.”
Sabuncu said he is occasionally asked what part of his ordeal has been the hardest. “They ask me was it being kept in the basement of the counter-terrorism unit, or being forced to take off my pants, as a 47-year-old father. The hardest for me, as a journalist, that I have to go over the headlines we have used. Those on trial here have been journalists for 28 to 60 years. I find it hardest to accept that people who work at a newspaper defending secularism and democracy such as Cumhuriyet are charged with FETÖ-related crimes. I am finding it very difficult to put forth the headlines of Cumhuriyet, and have to explain them.”
At the end of the first sessions, which lasted for five days, the court announced its interim ruling. It decided that seven Cumhuriyet employees should be released from prison pending trial while Sabuncu and three other Cumhuriyet journalists as well as a fifth imprisoned defendant should remain under arrest.
The court cited “protection of evidence” among the reasons for its decision to keep the four Cumhuriyet employees behind bars.
The next hearing in the trial took place on September 11, 2017, at a courtroom inside the Silivri prison compound. The court ordered the continuation of the detention of all defendants at the end of the hearing. A detailed report can be found here.
The third hearing was held on September 25, 2017, this time in the Çağlayan Courthouse in Istanbul. Three witnesses were heard at the hearing and the court ordered the release of columnist Kadri Gürsel, while ordering the continuation of the detention of Sabuncu and others.
Sabuncu remained behind bars at the end of the fourth hearing of the case, held on October 31, 2017, as well.
The fifth hearing of the case, originally scheduled to last for two days, on December 25 and 26, was cut short when Ahmet Şık was removed from the courtroom after the judge said his defense statement was “political” and would not be allowed. The defense lawyers demanded that the panel of judges recuse themselves, arguing that the removal of Şık indicated that the judges are not impartial.
The Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court later ruled that all imprisoned defendants in the case, including Sabuncu, remain behind bars pending trial and set 9 March 2018 as the date of the next hearing.
At the end of the March 9 hearing, Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and reporter Ahmet Şık were released pending the conclusion of the trial after spending more than 400 days in pre-trial detention at the Silivri Prison. The court ordered the continuation of the detention of Akın Atalay, the chairman of the newspaper’s executive board, and it also set March 16 as the date of the next hearing.
Sabuncu and Şık were released from Silivri later that night.
During the seventh hearing on March 16, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, requesting that 13 members of the Cumhuriyet staff, including editor in chief Murat Sabuncu, are convicted on charges 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 Sabuncu, of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” Sabuncu was sentenced to 7 years and 6 months in prison, though he remains free pending the outcome of the appeal.
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.
Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya 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.
Constitutional Court application
On 26 April 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would take up Sabuncu’s individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine other journalists, including his co-defendants in the Cumhuriyet trial, Ahmet Şık, Akın Atalay, Kadri Gürsel and Önder Çelik, on 2 May 2019.
At the end of the first day of deliberations, the court rejected the applications of Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Önder Çelik and Bülent Utku, while it ruled that Kadri Gürsel’s pre-trial detention violated his right to personal liberty and security. The court rendered all decisions through a majority vote.