Top court releases details of rulings on nine critical journalists’ applications

Turkey’s Constitutional Court (AYM) has released its justifying reasons of rulings on individual applications of nine journalists, including former Cumhuriyet daily executives and reporters, the T24 news portal reported on Wednesday.

While the AYM ruled rights of Murat Aksoy, Kadri Gursel and Ali Bulac were violated, the court nonetheless rejected individual applications of journalists Ahmet Altan, Akin Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Sik, Bulent Utku and Nazli Ilicak, saying their rights were not violated.

On Wednesday the court announced its reasoned decision on the individual applications of the journalists, the majority of whom were sentenced to prison over dubious charges of terrorism and coup involvement.

“Arresting someone based on his columns in a daily, without presenting strong evidence indicating a crime was committed, violates freedom of speech and press,” the court said in its reasoned decision for the veteran journalist and economist Kadri Gursel.

A year after being arrested as part of an investigation on Cumhuriyet daily journalists in 2016, Gursel was released pending trial. He was given two and a half years in prison for supporting a terrorist organization in April 2018.

“Although it can be said the applicant used harsh and critical language in his columns, it does not openly promote violence or terror activities,” AYM explained.

The court also underlined getting into contact with people who are investigated due to terrorism charges is not enough on its own to constitute a crime.

“Taking all these points into account, it was inferred reasons presented by the trial court do not involve strong evidence that indicates a crime has been committed,” the court stated.

The court further expressed its reasons for journalist Murat Aksoy’s application and argued his arrest based on columns and social media posts do not present strong evidence for a crime as that “violates freedoms of expression and press.”

Aksoy was sentenced to two years and one month for being a member of FETO, Turkish government’s designation of the Gulen movement as a terrorist organization. Although his sentence was finalized and he returned to prison on November 22, 2018, he was released on January 4, 2019, under judicial control.

“The columns and posts include criticism of the government and its policies and opinions on political incidents, but they do not incite violence or terrorist acts,” the court emphasized.

The supreme court also stated a number of rights of Ali Bulac, the former Zaman daily columnist detained on charges related to the Gulen movement and released in May 2018, were violated.

According to AYM’s justified ruling on Wednesday, columns written by Bulac allegedly promoting the Gulen group do not include a call for violence, rebellion or hate speech and they do not praise or legalize terror.

“Applicant’s being a member of the board of directors for a foundation  affiliated with the [Gulen] group alone does not form a direct link between him and a terrorist organization.”

The court elaborated Bulac’s arrest violates Article 19 of the Constitution, which protects the right to personal liberty and security, and Articles 26 and 28 on freedoms of expression and press.

The AYM, which gave its decisions on the nine journalists’ individual applications nearly three years later, ruled that the arrests of Atalay, Sabuncu, Sik, Utku, Ilicak, and Altan were not out of proportion considering the length of the sentences given to them.

The trial courts have presented concrete evidence for arresting the six applicants, AYM argued, referring to evidence in relation to social media posts of the journalists.

T24 said Zuhtu Arslan, the AYM president, was among the five court members who ruled to accept prominent journalist and author Ahmet Altan’s application as opposed to the 10 members who caused it to be rejected unanimously.

Altan was sentenced to life in jail over the charges that include attempting a coup against an elected government, trying to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and constitutional order and being a member of an armed terrorist organization.

Although Arslan argued columns and news reports written by Altan, which led to his arrest, were not published to serve the purposes of a terrorist organization, the top court’s judges decided unanimously they were.

It was indicated in the reasoned decision Altan’s columns, news reports, and a TV appearance set the ground for the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, of which the Turkish government accuses followers of the Gulen group, led by US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The court also ruled the arrest of veteran journalist Nazli Ilicak, who also received life sentence over same charges as Altan, has a legal basis.

“It’s not arbitrary or baseless to accept the applicant’s status, the time when her posts were shared on social media as well as the posts’ content and context as strong evidence for a crime related to the organization,” the justified ruling read.

The AYM also said arrests of Cumhuriyet daily Executive Board Chair Atalay, the daily’s editor-in-chief Sabuncu and journalist Sik, due to charges such as propaganda for a terrorist organization were not arbitrary or baseless.

The Constitutional Court’s rulings are binding for all subordinate courts across Turkey’s legal landscape and judicial system.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) shut down Zaman daily for being linked to Gulen group, among dozens of other media outlets during the two-year-long emergency rule after a coup attempt in July 2016.

Turkey, which ranks 157th out of 180 countries in 2019 World Press Freedom Index, has the highest number of journalists in prisons and is increasing state crackdown on critical media, according to Reporters Without Border.

Numerous critics, activists, human rights organizations and legal experts argued the charges against the dissident journalists were politically grounded.

The trials lacked transparency and contained many obstacles that imperiled the prospect of a fair trial, they claimed.

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