Cumhuriyet trial: the verdicts are out

Unexpectedly, the hearings already ended on Wednesday, 25 April 2018, with the verdicts. The sentences are less high than the charges. But high enough to give a clear signal to those believing in a free press. ECPMF's Nora Wehofsits is on-site monitoring the trial.

ECPMF in Turkey to monitor Cumhuriyet trial Cumhuriyet trial: pictures from the courtroom (by Murat Basol, Zeynep Ozatalay, Nalan Yirtmac)


From 24 to most likely 27 April, 2018 eighteen journalists and executives of Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet are standing trial again in Silivri Prison. This major case has become a symbol of the supression of media freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey. Those are the supposedly final hearings, verdicts are expected on Friday.

Journalists and media workers, critical of the Erdoğan administration are being accused of "spreading terrorist propaganda" or "supporting a terrorist organisation while not being a member", and the penalties required by the prosecution range from 7 up to 43 years in prison. The defendants are: Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Kadri Gürsel, Hakan Karasinir, Önder Çelik, Musa Kart, Bülent Utku, M. Kemal Güngör, Turhan Günay, Ahmet Şık, Emre İper, Güray Öz, Aydın Engin, Bülent Yener, Günseli, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Orhan Erinç, and Can Dündar.

As in July 2017, when she was monitoring the opening of the Cumhuriyet trial, ECPMF's advocacy officer Nora Wehofsits also monitors these hearings, starting Tuesday. She is available for interviews and comments. Also, you will find proceeding updates on Twitter

For press enquiries please contact Sophie Albers Ben Chamo.

Cumhuriyet trial updates by Nora Wehofsits:

23 April 2018: An introductory briefing took place in the evening of 23 April, 2018. FoX community representatives, journalists and news agency editors met with defendants, amongst them Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Sik and Kadri Gürsel as well as defence lawyer Tora Pekin. "There was a strangely optimistic feeling in the air," Wehofsits says. "And it was good to see the defendants in a hotel lobby instead of the court room, where they are being marched off, and cannot even embrace their relatives." 

Eleven of the defendants were in pre-trial confinement. Now only Akin Atalay is still in prison. There is still no decision on the unlawful detention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) which is now too late. The Turkish jurisdiction will ignore it anyway, says Toran Pekin. ”. And other cases already show that Turkey disregards its decision which raises the question how effective it is in this case.

From Tuesday on, the defendants are giving their final statements. Atalay will have to comment on a new "digital report", which was brought up as "new evidence". Then seven lawyers will speak. The defence will invoke the necessity of freedom of expression and the importance of Cumhuriyet.

The verdicts are expected to be lighter because the charges state "aiding terrorist organisations" not "membership". "Hopefully they will be counted up against the time in detention", says Wehofsits. There will be the possibility to appeal the verdicts individually through upper courts as the constitutional court.

The influence of the upcoming snapp elections on the trial can only be assumed. Maybe it increases the pressure also on not-persecuted journalist, some say. The verdict will have a chilling effect on other journalists in Turkey, that's for sure.  

"None of us was taking the arrest personally," says Murat Sabuncu. "This is about silencing us to set an example to all journalists. But they have seen now, that they cannot silence us. Also with the international support and solidarity we have. It’s possible to practice journalism in Turkey if you have the courage." " 

International solidarity and transparency of what is going on are crucial. 

24 April 2018: The hearings are taking place in Silivri prison, the biggest high-security prison in Europe, the most modern in Turkey. "It's a small town of its own," says Wehofsits. The hearings take place in a courtroom two storeys underground, hence no mobile phone reception, hence no word from the inside, only from those who are allowed to use their mobile phones in the press room upstairs.

The court room was spacious and not packed today. It was much less of a struggle to get in than last time. It's even cold because of the air-conditioning, nothing like the Caglayan courthouse. The judge starts the hearing by saying that it could last less than four days. Before the defendants can give their final statements, Akin Atalay takes the stand to shred the digital report to pieces that was brought up by the investigation as additional evidence. He was just dismantling it by putting the things into the right context, until there was no evidence left.

Entrance of Silivri prison The entrance of Silivri prison (photo by ECPMF)

Kadri Gursel giving his defence speech in Silivri prison Kadri Gursel giving his defence speech in Silivri prison (drawing by Murat Basol)

24 April 2018: Defences started with Kadri Gürsel, then it's one after the other: some of the defendants have decided not to repeat what has been said already and to make their statements rather short. Oters chose to express once more that journalism itself is put on trial, that the indictment is lacking any ground, and that it is unreasonable to put a crime on any of the accusations.

“I was kept in jail on groundless claims,” Kadri Gürsel finished his defence. All of them are, and this is what makes this political trial so tragic. Because it steals such precious life time from people. "Our right to justice has been violated, our freedom and our lives have been stolen from us,” said Mustafa Kemal Güngör.

After all defendants gave their statements, the defence lawyers started. Again they made clear, that there is a lack of evidence and fabricated accusations.

The defence lawyers will continue on April 25. In the afternoon, the court will announce when to expect the final verdicts – and hopefully they will at least pretend that they need to carefully reason their judgements. Obviously these hearings won’t last four full days. Fair enough. This trial should have never started in the first place. It needs to end now.

25 April 2018: Not Friday, but today seems to be the day of the final verdict in the Cumhuriyet trial in Silivri.

It started erratic "Maybe Friday, maybe today," Nora Wehofsits said in the morning. But shortly after four p.m. it was clear, that this trial would come to an end much sooner than expected.

25 April 2018: Today the lawyers presented their final speeches, Wehofsits says. "The judge was conspicuously calm. And it was so very clear that the indictment was unlawful. As if they were lecturing but full of courage the lawyers demonstrated the lack of connections between witness statements and accusations. They also explained the limitations of freedom of expression."

People are hopeful, that the punishments won't be as high as the charges and that they will be counted up against the time the defendants already spent in detention. There won't be arrests today, Wehofsits says, for the verdicts need to be finalised, she says.

However, everything is said. Ahmet Şık sensed it already, Wehofsits says. And those were his final words in the courtrom:

"This may seem like the last words but actually it's just the beginning.

The objective of this gang that was made up of members of politics, bureaucracy, judiciary and some media was to force believers of democracy, peace, freedom and equality kneel, and take over the entire society under a wave of intimidation.

On behalf of those who have been standing against unlawfulness and violation of rights for their entire lives, let’s respond to this gang and others alike by repeating what we’ve been saying from the very first day:

It’s you who should surrender."

Nora Wehofsits, while she is waiting with other NGO representatives for the judges to return, says: "This trial should have never been brought up. There is no evidence for those accusations. It's evident after all the hearings that the indictment and every case is filled with violations themselves. Journalism was put on trial!"

25 April 2018: The Cumhuriyet trial verdicts are coming in, and it's a blatant shame for the alleged democracy Turkey. It just took them ten minutes:

Journalists Ahmet Şık and Aydin Engin are given seven years and six months in prison for "helping a terrorist organisation".

Orhan Erinç: six years and three months and Akin Atalay seven years three months and 15 days for "helping a terrorist organisation", however, Atalay was released in today's trial.

Editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu: seven years and six months,  Kadri Gürsel two and a half years, Guray Öz three years and nine months, and cartoonist Musa Kart three years and nine months for "helping a terrorist organisation”

Mustafa Kemal Gungör, Hakan Kara and Önder Çelik: three years and nine months for "helping a terrorist organisation".

Emre Iper: three years and nine months, after three years, one month and fifteen days imprisonment. 

A teacher called Ahmet Kemal Aydogdu was sentenced to ten years in prison and is denied release. He was accused of posting a "provocative tweet" which Cumhuriyet reported on.

The court seperated the proceedings Ilhan Tanir and Can Dündar. Bülent Yener and Günseli Özaltay were acquitted.

For all defendants except Akın Atalay the court put judicial control measures in place.

"A clear message from the Turkish government to anyone who insists on journalism. The implications are severe," writes the Turkish NGO Media and Law Studies Associaton (MLSA).

Right after the verdicts were read out editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu said: " I will stay in this country, and I will continue to do journalism with courage".

The verdicts have to be confirmed by the Supreme Court, which can take time, says Wehofsits. The defendants' lawyers will defenitely appeal at the upper court. Hopefully no one needs to go back jail in the end.

Defendants and lawyers wait for Akın Atalay at a motorway service area. That's where they will bring Atalay. 

This was a trial where the ‘crime’ was journalism, and the only ‘evidence’ was journalistic activities

29 media freedom and freedom of expression organisations call on the institutions of the Council of Europe and its member states to remind Turkey of its international obligation to respect and protect human rights.

Please find here the full text of our joint statement 

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