Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer and former columnist for the shuttered Radikal, Today’s Zaman and Bugün dailies, was taken into custody at the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul on July 21, 2016, a few days after the attempted coup of July 15, 2016.
Cengiz was arrested as part of an investigation into the columnists, executives and staff of Zaman daily, which was seized by the government earlier that year in March due to its links with the Fethullah Gülen network. The newspaper and its parent company Feza Media Group were eventually shuttered through a statutory decree on July 27, 2016. Cengiz officially became a lawyer for Zaman before its closure, during the time the government appointed a board of trustees to the daily.
Cengiz was released from custody with a travel ban following his interrogation by a prosecutor after four days in detention.
Following his release, Cengiz told the online news network Bianet that the accusations leveled against him during the interrogation were related to “FETÖ” — an acronym for “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization” — which is the name given by the Turkish government to the religious network led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen.
During the interrogation, “I was only asked about a couple of my social media posts from before a-year-and-a-half, and that was when I understood they had nothing in the case file against me,” Cengiz told Bianet.
The long-awaited indictment into Cengiz and 29 other suspects, including 10 former columnists for Zaman such as Şahin Alpay, Mümtazer Türköne and Ahmet Turan Alkan, was accepted in April 2017 by the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
The indictment, issued by prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt, sought three aggravated life sentences on charges stemming from the failed coup attempt of July 15 and an additional prison term of up to 15 years for “terrorist group membership” for each suspect.
The first hearing of the trial took place over two days, on September 18-19, 2017, at the courthouse within the Silivri prison compound.
The second hearing of the trial was held at the same venue on December 8, 2017.
During his defense statement, Cengiz told the court: “We have been trying to understand why I am here [among the defendants] for the last two hearings as the indictment doesn’t explain that. I am mentioned among the columnists in the indictment, but there isn’t a single article I wrote among the accusations.”
“When I was detained, I learned through the file number that I had been taken into custody as part of the Zaman trial, which I took to the Constitutional Court. I built my professional career on individual applications. I have represented all segments [of society] at the European Court of Human Rights,” Cengiz added.
At the end of that hearing, the court ruled to release three former employees of Zaman’s advertising department from pretrial detention, and adjourned the trial to April 5, 2018.
At the third hearing on April 5, also held in Silivri, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion. The prosecutor requested aggravated life imprisonment on the charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” under Article 309/1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and up to 15 years in prison on the “membership in an armed terrorist organization” charge under TCK Article 314/2 for nine of the 11 columnists on trial, including Cengiz.
The prosecutor, however, didn’t request the detention of five columnists who are not in detention on remand as part of the case, including Cengiz.
In his final opinion, the prosecutor argued that Cengiz “ has expressed his loyalty to the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization in his writings” in the shuttered Bugün newspaper. The prosecutor continued: “He has fulfilled the duties assigned to him within the organization by, in particular, praising the so-called corruption operations concocted by those members of the police force and judiciary who were loyal to the organization. All these explanations show without any doubt that the defendant has committed the offense of membership in an armed terrorist organization that he is charged with.”
As for the accusation of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” the prosecutor wrote: “Actions of the defendant, who is a member of the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, whose aim is to overthrow the constitutional order of the state, have gone beyond membership, and the defendant has attempted to persuade the society that objective conditions for a coup emerged by portraying the government as an organ of the state that does not fulfill its duties and, in particular, by alleging that the government treated members of the organization as prisoners of war. For this reason, the defendant who is a member of the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, has also committed the offense of the violation of the Constitution by fulfilling the duty assigned to him in line with the organization’s sole purpose.”
Issuing an interim ruling at the end of the hearing, the court ordered to separate the files of 20 defendants who weren’t on trial for their articles in the case, and adjourned the main trial against the columnists until May 10-11 at the Istanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan for the final defense statements.
In late April, the prosecutor amended the charges for four of the suspects in the case, including Cengiz. In his additional final opinion, presented to the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court on 24 April, the prosecutor dropped the previous charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” a crime punishable by aggravated life sentence, for Cengiz, instead seeking up to 13 years in jail on the charge of “repeatedly conducting propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
The fourth hearing in the trial was held on May 10 and 11 at the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
Cengiz was one of only two defendants who gave their defense statements in response to the prosecutor’s final opinion on the first day of the hearing.
In his address to the court, Cengiz said he was on trial not for his newspaper columns but for being the lawyer who has brought the Zaman case before the Constitutional Court. He requested his acquittal.
In its interim decision at the end of the two-day hearing, the court ruled to release columnist Ali Bulaç and Zaman’s former Responsible Managing Editor Mehmet Özdemir from pretrial detention, while ordering the lifting of Şahin Alpay’s house arrest. The court ordered the continuation of the detention of the remaining imprisoned defendants in the case while setting June 7 and 8 as the dates for the next hearing.
At the end of the fifth hearing, held on June 7-8, the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul ordered the continuation of the detentions of Ahmet Turan Alkan, Mümtazer Türköne, İbrahim Karayeğen and Mustafa Ünal. One of the judges on the panel gave a dissenting opinion on that ruling. Recalling Ali Bulaç’s release at the end of the previous hearing on grounds that the nature of the allegations against him could be subject to change, the judge asserted that all jailed defendants in the case should have been released based on the principle of legal equality.
The court set July 5 and 6 as the dates for the next hearing in the case.
In its verdict announced at the end of the July 5-6 hearing, the court convicted six of the journalists standing trial of “membership in a terrorist organization” while acquitting five of the defendants.
The 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul acquitted Orhan Kemal Cengiz of all charges.