Önder Çelik, a former Cumhuriyet Foundation executive board member, was detained as part of an operation targeting Cumhuriyet newspaper’s staff and board members on 31 October 2016. Çelik was the newspaper’s printing administrator.
Along with Çelik, Cumhuriyet Foundation board members Bülent Utku, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Güray Öz, Hakan Kara, Musa Kart, Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, editorial advisor Kadri Gürsel and the editor of the newspaper’s book supplement, Turhan Günay, were detained.
According to a statement from the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, an investigation was launched on 18 August 2016 following “claims that [the newspaper’s] publications printed prior to the 15 July coup attempt served to legitimize the coup, on charges of committing crimes on behalf of the terrorist organizations FETÖ/PDY [Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure] and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)/Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK)” that led to the arrests of the Cumhuriyet staff. A court order issued on 30 October 2016 limited public access to the case.
Çelik and the eight Cumhuriyet executives and employees, after appearing before the Istanbul 9th Criminal Judgeship of Peace on 5 November 2016, were arrested and taken to prison.
In the indictment submitted to the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, Çelik was accused of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” and “misuse of trust by virtue of office based on service relation.” The charges carried a combined prison sentence of 11.5 to 43 years.
Evidence against Çelik in the indictment included the records of his communications with two FETÖ suspects and three users of the encrypted messaging application ByLock. Another accusation held Çelik and the executives who took office in 2013 responsible for “a radical transformation in the newspaper’s editorial policy” and “legitimizing the actions of armed terrorist organizations” such as “FETÖ/PDY, PKK/KCK, DHKP/C”through the newspaper. Çelik was also held responsible for the financial loss the foundation and the company suffered after his election to the board.
The first hearing in the trial of Cumhuriyet employees and executives was held on 24-28 April 2017 at the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
In his defense statement on the second day of the hearing, Çelik said:“I know that it is risky today as it is was yesterday to be employed or to be an employer in a dissident newspaper. Being secular, democratic, defending freedom and justice and remaining faithful to Atatürk’s principles are the essential aspects of my worldview. Based on assumed intentions and by collecting writings and news reports alleged to be ‘aiding and supporting terrorism’ you cannot arrest newspaper executives.”
In its interim ruling on 28 April, the court ruled to release seven detained defendants in the case, including Çelik, while ordering the continuation of the pre-trial detentions of five defendants.
The second hearing of the trial was held on 11 September 2017 in a courtroom inside the Silivri Prison premises. A detailed report about the hearing, in which no new release decisions were rendered, can be found here.
The third hearing was held on 25 September 2017 at the Çağlayan courthouse. Three defendants delivered defense statements during the hearing, in which Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel was released pending the conclusion of the trial.
During the fourth hearing, held on 31 October 2017, digital forensics expert Tuncay Beşikçi testified in relation to the messaging application ByLock. 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 25 and 26 December 2017 concluded earlier than expected after defendant 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. The court postponed the trial until 9 March 2018.
At the end of the 9 March 2018 hearing, the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul ruled for the release of editor in chief Murat Sabuncu and reporter Ahmet 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 prosecutor submitted his final opinion during the seventh hearing held on 16 March 2018, demanding prison sentences for 13 defendants. The prosecutor requested that 13 members of the staff, including executive board member Çelik, be convicted of “aiding an armed organization without being its member.”
The court announced its verdict at the final hearing on 24-25 April 2018, convicting 13 Cumhuriyet columnists and executives, including Çelik, of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” Çelik was sentenced to 3 years and 9 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.
While Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Murat Sabuncu and Orhan Erinç can appeal the verdict with the Supreme Court of Appeals, eight of the defendants in the case, including Önder Çelik, had to return to prison to serve the remainder of the sentences they were imposed since prison terms under five years cannot be appealed further once they are upheld by an appellate court.
On 25 April 2019, Çelik and five of his co-defendants were sent back to prison to serve the remainder of the sentences they were given last year in the “Cumhuriyet trial.”
Constitutional Court application
On 26 April 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would take up Çelik’s individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine other people, including his co-defendants in the Cumhuriyet trial, Ahmet Şık, Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay and Kadri Gürsel, on 2 May 2019.
At the end of the first day of deliberations, the court rejected the applications of Önder Çelik, Murat Sabuncu, Akın Atalay, Ahmet Şık 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.
Çelik is currently imprisoned in the Kandıra Prison in the Kocaeli province.