Nine columnists of the shuttered newspaper, including Şahin Alpay, under house arrest since March, face “violating the constitution” and “terrorist group membership” charges

The third hearing of the “Zaman trial,” in which 31 defendants, including former employees of the Gülenist media organizations and columnists of the shuttered newspaper Zaman — Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Ahmet Turan Alkan and Mümtazer Türköne among them — are facing “coup” and “terrorist group membership” charges, was held on April 5, 2018, at the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.

The 12-hour hearing held at the courtroom inside the Silivri Prison premises, was monitored in the courtroom by P24, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the UK-based NGO Article 19 as well as representatives from the European Union Delegation to Turkey and the Swedish Consul-General in Istanbul.

The prosecutor submitted his final opinion during the hearing, seeking aggravated life imprisonment and an additional 15 years in prison for “violating the Constitution” and “membership in an armed terrorist organization” for nine of the 11 columnists standing trial in the case. He also requested that all imprisoned defendants are remanded in pretrial detention, while he did not request the arrest of five of the columnists who are not in prison, including Şahin Alpay, who has been under house arrest since March 16, when he was released from the Silivri Prison after more than 590 days in detention after the Constitutional Court ruled for a second time that his imprisonment on remand was in violation of his right to liberty.

Issuing an interim ruling at the end of the hearing, the court ordered the continuation of detention of all imprisoned defendants in the case and rejected Alpay’s request for the lifting of his house arrest. The court adjourned the trial to May 10-11 for the final defense statements.

The court also ruled to separate the files of defendants on trial for their financial involvement with or having assumed administrational duties within Feza Media Group — the parent company that included the Zaman newspaper and the Cihan News Agency as well as several other newspapers and television stations purported to have ties with the Fethullah Gülen network.

Prosecutor’s final opinion 

In his final opinion, the prosecutor accused Zaman journalists and writers of “laying the groundwork for the [July 15] coup” through their columns, articles and remarks made during TV appearances. He particularly cited their articles on the graft probes of December 17 and 25, 2013, which involved four former ministers and several businessmen close to the government. Zaman writers “attempted to legalize the [graft] investigations under the guise of a corruption probe in line with orders from Fethullah Gülen,” the prosecutor claimed.

The prosecutor requested aggravated life sentences on the charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” under Article 309/1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and additional 15 years imprisonment on “membership in an armed terrorist organization” charge under TCK Article 314/2 for columnists Ali Bulaç, Mümtazer Türköne, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Zaman’s former responsible managing editor Mehmet Özdemir, former Ankara representative and columnist Mustafa Ünal and night editor İbrahim Karayeğen.

The prosecutor sought the same sentences, based on the same charges, for Alpay and two other columnists who are not imprisoned, Orhan Kemal Cengiz and İhsan Dağı, while he did not request their arrest.

For Lale Kemal and Nuriye Akman, two other former columnists of Zaman who are also not in detention on remand, the prosecutor sought prison sentences on the charge of “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being part of its hierarchical structure” as per TCK 220/7 while requesting that the two journalists are acquitted of other charges in the indictment.

As for the remaining 20 defendants in the case, who had assumed various administrative duties in companies under the Feza media group, the prosecutor requested prison sentences on the charge of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” These suspects are Cihan news agency former employee Osman Nuri Arslan, Cihan news agency General Manager Faruk Akkan, share holder at the Cihan and Samanyolu companies Sedat Yetişkin, Cihan news agency executive board member Ahmet Metin Sekizkardeş, former executive board chairperson of Timaş Publications, Osman Nuri Öztürk, former Zaman executive Adil Gülçek, former Irmak TV executive Şeref Yılmaz, Süleyman Sargın, Ahmet İrem, Hakan Taşdelen, Alaattin Güner, Murat Avcıoğlu, Zafer Özsoy, Cuma Kaya, Hüseyin Turan, Yüksel Durgut, and advertising department employees Ali Hüseyin Çelebi, İsmail Küçük, Hüseyin Belli and Onur Kutlu.

Defense statements 

Defendants expressed indignation over their articles being shown as basis for aggravated life imprisonment sentence. Columnist Mümtazer Türkone said his articles contained criticism. “You cannot come up with a terror crime by putting my criticisms together,” he said.

Islamic scholar and writer Ali Bulaç said: “The prosecutor doesn’t have the right to interpret articles.” He also added that he was known for his thesis on civil Islam and supporting the coup attempt by the Gülen movement would mean “self-denial.”

Writer Ahmet Turan Alkan said he penned columns for Zaman for 20 years, adding: “I only wrote articles. Show me something other than my columns as evidence that I violated the constitution. I have never changed my views.” Alkan also criticized the judge panel for refusing to apply the Constitutional Court’s Şahin Alpay ruling as precedent for the other defendants in the case. “I demand the Constitutional Court ruling to be applied ex officio to me and my friends,” he said.

Mustafa Ünal, a columnist and Zaman’s former Ankara bureau chief, said he was shocked about the accusations leveled against him. “In 620 days we only appeared in three hearings and saw three different head judges [each time]. Would you like to be tried by such a court?”

Mehmet Özdemir told the court that his numerous petitions requesting his release from prison based on the Constitutional Court rulings in favor of his co-defendant Şahin Alpay were rejected on grounds that Constitutional Court rulings were individual. “Don’t these individual judgments still constitute precedent?” Özdemir demanded.

Alpay highlighted in his statement that new allegations that were not present in the indictment were introduced in the prosecutor’s final opinion, and asked for additional time. He also noted that he made 88 visits to the hospital during the past 20 months but currently being under house arrest prevented him from going to the hospital for his chronic ailments due to his advanced age. He requested the court to lift his house arrest.

Alpay’s lawyer Aynur Tuncel Yazgan said the prosecutor’s final opinion included new documents about her client that were neither included in the indictment nor in the case file. She said: “[No new] evidence was read out at the court. How did the prosecutor obtain these documents that we only heard about today? Only the court can decide to add new evidence after the completion of the investigation. Has the court ordered the collection of new evidence?”

Also touching upon Alpay’s house arrest, Yazgan said the court releasing Alpay from prison and placing him on house arrest did not eliminate the violations found by the Constitutional Court in Alpay’s case. “A person cannot be arrested if the Constitutional Court says there is no strong suspicion of crime. So house arrest is not a remedy in eliminating the violation. In case the court does not lift Alpay’s house arrest today, we will lodge a new application before the Constitutional Court,” she added.

Interim ruling 

In his concluding remarks following the completion of the defense statements, the prosecutor requested that Alpay’s plea to lift his house arrest is rejected. He also requested the continuation of detention of all 18 imprisoned suspects in the case.

Issuing its interim decision, the court rejected Alpay’s plea and ruled for the continuation of detention of all imprisoned defendants in the case.

The court also ruled that the files of Osman Nuri Arslan, Şeref Yılmaz, Faruk Akkan, Hakan Taşdelen, Murat Avcıoğlu, Zafer Özsoy, Cuma Kaya, Hüseyin Turan, Ahmet Metin Sekizkardeş, Alaattin Güner, Osman Nuri Öztürk, Süleyman Sargın, Ali Hüseyin Çelebi, İsmail Küçük, Onur Kutlu, Hüseyin Belli, Yüksel Durgut and Ahmet İrem are separated from this case on grounds that there was “no legal or de facto connection between the accusations against these 18 suspects and the other suspects in the case,” and set April 27 and 30 as the date of their upcoming hearings.

The panel also ruled to separate the files of Adil Gülçek and Sedat Yetişkin, who requested to benefit from effective repentance law, and set April 11 and May 8, respectively, as the date of their next hearings.

The remaining 11 defendants in the main case will appear before the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court on May 10 and 11 for the fourth hearing of the case, in which the court is expected to issue its verdict. The hearing will be held at the İstanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan.

The Zaman trial was opened a year ago, on April 10, 2017, when the court accepted the long-awaited indictment against the 30 suspects in the case. The number of suspects became 31 when Gülçek’s file was merged with this case. The first hearing of the trial took place on September 18-19, 2017. Three advertising department employees were released at the second hearing in December, bringing the number of imprisoned defendants in the case down from 22 to 19. The number of imprisoned defendants in the case became 18 after Alpay’s release from Silivri Prison on March 16.