Former Zaman finance desk reporter was released on health grounds. The final verdict in the case will be issued on February 22
Imprisoned journalist Halil İbrahim Balta, a former finance desk reporter for the shuttered Zaman daily, was released pending trial on account of his ailment during the latest hearing of the case publicly known as the “FETÖ media trial,” in which 29 journalists including former T24 columnist Murat Aksoy and former singer and newspaper columnist Atilla Taş, are standing trial on “membership in a terrorist organization” and “coup” charges.
Followed in the courtroom by P24, the February 6, 2018 hearing at the Istanbul 25th High Criminal Court marked the third hearing in the trial after two separate case files were merged in August.
During the hearing, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion on the case, laying out the charges and the punishment he requests for the defendants. The prosecutor requested the court to acquit 13 defendants of “coup” charges. He requested that all but three defendants, Murat Aksoy, Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu and Muhterem Tanık, be charged with “membership in FETÖ/PDY terrorist organization” while the rest be charged with “aiding the FETÖ/PDY terrorist organization without being a part of its hierarchical structure.” The prosecutor also requested the release of Çulhaoğlu on account of the changed accusation. Çulhaoğlu is currently in pre-trial detention on coup-related charges.
FETÖ/PDY stands for “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure,” the name given by the Turkish government to the religious Fethullah Gülen network.
The prosecutor also requested for the re-arrest of four defendants who had been released pending trial during previous hearings, saying that the “terrorist group membership” accusation requires the defendants be held in pre-trial detention. The four defendants are Ali Akkuş, Cihan Acar and Bünyamin Köseli and Atilla Taş.
The court delayed decision on the prosecutor’s requests, saying they will be concluded along with the final verdict in the case. The final hearing in the case will be held on February 22, where the defendants and defense lawyers will present their final defense statements.
Defendants respond to digital report
An expert report on the digital materials collected during the investigation was presented during the hearing. Hanım Büşra Erdal, a former Zaman reporter, who is one of the imprisoned defendants in the case, noted that the report searched keywords such as “brother” and “sister” –- allegedly used to express a hierarchical status within the Gülen organization -– and “maklube” –- a rice dish allegedly prepared during gatherings of Gülen movement members. “I never said that I didn’t know about the [Gülen organization]. I started working in Zaman in 2002 and worked there for 10-15 years. But I just did my job, I have never been part of any other hierarchy. I never called anyone, except for my [senior] colleagues, ‘brother.’ I didn’t put on the Gülen organization hat while working for Zaman. I won’t put on a FETÖ hat in this court,” she said.
Former Bugün photographer Cihan Acar, who had been released pending trial, pointed out that the report only found out a Word document containing a very short bio of Fethullah Gülen and an Excel document with various names among hundreds of thousands of documents in his computer. “There were more than 200,000 photographs, as I am a photographer, and about 10,000 files in the same computer. The only things mentioned from a total of 650,000 documents are a Word sheet and an Excel sheet,” he said.
Lawyers criticized the prosecutor’s demand of a sentence on charges of “membership in FETÖ/PDY,” stressing that most of the expert reports, including the latest digital report, contained evidence in favor of the defendants. There is no substantial evidence sufficient to prove membership allegations, lawyers said.
Ümit Kardaş, a lawyer representing Hanım Büşra Erdal, stressed that for a suspect to be charged of “membership in a terrorist organization,” the organization should be established with the purpose of perpetrating terror acts. He said the Gülen organization had carried out legitimate activities for years before being declared as a terrorist organization. “When this organization has turned into a terrorist organization and at what point the suspects could have been aware of that? This needs to be clarified,” Kardaş said.
The court is expected to announce its final verdict during the next hearing, set for February 22.
About the case
A total of 29 defendants, an overwhelming majority of whom are journalists from a number of different media outlets, are on trial as part of the case. The indictment originally sought prison term for all of the defendants for “membership in a terrorist organization.”
On the last day of the first hearing, held on March 27-31, 2016, the prosecutor requested the release of 13 defendants and the panel of judges ordered the release of 21 of the 26 imprisoned defendants, including the 13 defendants for whom the prosecution sought release. However, the same day in the evening hours, news arrived that yet another investigation on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government and the constitutional order” had been opened against the 13 defendants who had just been released, resulting in the arrest of the 13 said defendants as they were leaving the prison premises. Following a two-week period of custody at the Istanbul anti-terror police headquarters, 12 of the 13 defendants were jailed pending trial, this time on the new coup related charges.
The “coup” and “terrorism” cases were eventually merged in August.