The first aggravated life sentences have been handed down for journalists in Turkey following the failed coup of July 15, 2016. The sentences were passed on to Nazlı Ilıcak and brothers Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, who through their editorials, programmes and comments accompanied and contributed to the changes made in Turkey over the past 30 years. This includes the last 16 years, during which they initially supported and later became very critical of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The three journalists were arrested at the end of September 2016, accused both of taking part in the failed coup and of being members of the “media branch of FETÖ (Fetullahçı Terör Örgütü),” the acronym coined by the Turkish government for the “terrorist organization” loyal to Fethullah Gülen, the imam and millionaire currently residing in the United States. Gülen, who was once very close to the Turkish government, is seen by the president and a large section of the Turkish public as having been the brains behind the coup attempt. After that night, there was a widespread crackdown against various journalists who worked for media outlets linked to Gülen. Some fled, while others, including Ilicak and the Altan brothers, were arrested.
Prosecutors asked that each defendant be given triple aggravated life sentences, presenting articles, phone taps, witness statements and pronouncements by the journalists on TV programmes as evidence of their crimes. They specifically mentioned two incidents: a televised talk show that Ahmet Altan appeared on as the guest of his brother a day before July 15, and Ilicak’s appearance on the allegedly Gülen affiliated and now closed Can Erzincan network, in which he harshly criticised the government. Prosecutors considered words used by Altan on the show as “subliminal messages,” indicating that the brothers “knew” that there would soon be a coup, which was sufficient cause for their arrests.
On January 11th, before the trial ended, Turkey’s Constitutional Court considered a motion presented by the lawyers for Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay – another journalist already imprisoned for 18 months for the same crime – stating that the preventive detention the two brothers had received violated their constitutional rights, allowing them to be set free, as had happened in February 2016 at the trials of Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and journalist Erdem Gül.
It was an exemplary decision that would not only have prevented imminent intervention in the case by the European Court of Human Rights, but also, according to some legal experts, would have established a precedent for other imprisoned journalists. In any case, local courts refused to carry out the Constitutional Court’s directive, while a government spokesman, Bekir Bozdağ, stated that the court had “overstepped itself,” for the first time going against the country’s judicial hierarchy. Additionally, during the trial, the judges prevented defence lawyers from defending their clients on more than one occasion, ejecting them from the court room and preventing Mehmet Altan from reading the Constitutional Court’s decision in their favour.
On Friday, February 17th, the 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul found Altan Ilıcak and three others defendants guilty of “trying to abolish the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey” and sentenced them to the heaviest penalty in the Turkish penal code: aggravated life sentence. This punishment is a substitute for the death penalty, which was abolished in 2003 as part of the reforms undertaken by Turkey during opening negotiations to join the European Union, signed into law by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This sentence means solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and strict limits on the right to receive visitors, to make phone calls, or to mingle with other prisoners.
The sentences attracted a great deal of condemnation, especially from overseas. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said, “The court decision condemning journalists to life in prison for their work, without presenting substantial proof of their involvement in the coup attempt or ensuring a fair trial, critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey.” A similar statement was expressed by Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, who emphasized that such lack of respect for the legal hierarchy, “raises fundamental questions about the ability of the judiciary to uphold the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.”
While the possibility to lodge an appeal for the three journalists remains open, legal means are as uncertain as ever. According to attorney Kerem Altıparmak, failing to obey decisions by the Constitutional Court would cause the government to lose critical avenues of appeal before the European Court of Human Rights, meaning it would become impossible to say that the Constitutional Court is an efficient legal recourse and it would go directly to the Court of Human Rights, bypassing the Constitutional Court.
Ergin Cinmen, among the defence lawyers, commented on the sentence saying that Constitutional Court decisions are not being applied only in Azerbaijan and Turkey, adding that “this decision shows that justice in Turkey, or at least that part of it that we are experiencing, has become a government tool.”
But judicial independence has also been seriously tested by the sudden release of Deniz Yücel, correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, who was imprisoned for over a year without being made aware of his charges and released the same day the Altan brothers and Nazlı Ilıcak were handed life sentences. Two days before his release, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, during a visit to Germany hinted that he was under the impression there would soon be developments in the case of the German-Turkish journalist. Yücel’s release left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. That same day, prosecutors charged him with terrorist propaganda offences and demanded a sentence of four to 18 years in prison, without forbidding him from leaving the country. All this was the outcome of diplomatic traffic between Ankara and Berlin that, according to the German press, took place behind closed doors during the visit to Rome at the beginning of February by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, and later in Turkey. In January, Gabriel considered the possibility of resuming arms sales to Turkey should Yücel be set free.
Translated by Francesca Simmons
Credit: Ozan Kose / AFP