From protecting the victim to violating the right to defense: SEGBİS

In the 1990s, TV channels in Turkey would record footage in courtrooms.
Through this practice, the accusations and defenses that marked recent history were broadcast directly to the public from courtrooms that were supposed to reach a verdict on behalf of that public. On the other hand, however, this practice also tarnished the presumption of innocence for the accused. Because, the broadcasts presented the accused as guilty, although no verdict had yet been reached.

In the 1990s, TV channels in Turkey would record footage in courtrooms.
Through this practice, the accusations and defenses that marked recent history were broadcast directly to the public from courtrooms that were supposed to reach a verdict on behalf of that public. On the other hand, however, this practice also tarnished the presumption of innocence for the accused. Because, the broadcasts presented the accused as guilty, although no verdict had yet been reached.
In the early 2000s, this practice was discontinued. In 2011, a video recording system integrated to the National Judicial Network Project (UYAP) was developed. The statements of the suspects, defendants, witnesses and victim children who could not come to the courtroom in person would be received through this system. However, the subsequent widespread use of this system resulted in the violation of the right to defense, especially in political cases. Trials involving journalists and writers also took their share from this violation.
Functioning together with the UYAP system, the Audio and Video Information System (SEGBİS) was integrated into judiciary proceedings with a regulation published in the Official Gazette on September 20, 2011, but it was launched in 2013. The purpose of the system was to record the testimony of victimized children, individuals part of the witness protection program, and suspects or defendants who stayed in therapeutic institutions, without bringing them into the courtroom.
According to the latest data announced by the Ministry of Justice, as of February 2019, 266 prisons are connected to courtrooms through 555 SEGBİS devices. During the 6 years of its use, 1 million 177 thousand 778 connections were established between the courts and prisons.
To run the system, two screens are set up in courtrooms, one behind and one in front of the panel of judges. Next to these screens, cameras are placed to record the room from different angles. In this system, which resembles the application “Skype”, the names of the courts and prisons to be connected are listed as contacts, and connections are established to these by remote control. In fact, SEGBİS is a “teleconference system” connecting courtrooms and prisons…
At each trial, the screen is divided into as many sections as the number of detained defendants not brought to the courtroom. As this number increases, it becomes harder to see the face of each defendant. The person contacted also sees the court and audience rows from the screen in front of her / him.
In proceedings conducted through SEGBİS, the words of the person who is not in the courtroom can be hard to hear clearly. The judge therefore frequently stops the defense of the accused in order to understand what she / he says. Sometimes the image freezes or the connection is lost.
Secret witnesses part of a witness protection program also testify through SEGBİS. Next to the witness who is not in the courtroom there stands the delegated judge, who acts as a deputy of the actual judge in the courtroom. Since such witnesses are in the protection program, their voice and image are altered on the screen in the courtroom. Audio and video recordings are sometimes transcribed by judges and sometimes by expert witnesses to be added to trial records. Thus, all statements, accusations, defenses and testimonies are recorded.

An instrument of unlawfulness

When the SEGBİS application was first launched, judges and prosecutors known to have ties to Fetullah Gülen dominated the judiciary system. Recourse to “secret witnesses” was the most important method used by prosecutors, especially in political trials. These witnesses were given code names by prosecutors, and heard at hearings.
The witness code-named “Efe” was among the secret witnesses in the trial dubbed the Ergenekon trial, which marked a turning point in Turkish political history and continues to have reverberations today. Many members of the top brass were arrested on Efe’s testimony. As the trial continued, it turned out that this secret witness was a prosecutor, and he was later arrested. In the KCK investigations against Kurdish politicians, too, prosecutors directed accusations against the accused via secret witnesses.
In the investigations launched after the alliance between the Justice and Development Party and Fetullah Gülen broke down, there was not the slightest decrease in the crucial role of secret witnesses. These people were often selected from those who were defendants in other investigations, and gave statements on the condition of receiving no punishment: that is, they were chosen among those who were eligible to benefit from the ‘effective remorse law’. These witnesses were supposed to give statements without coming under pressure, in order to avoid the risk of sentence. For this, their identity had to be kept secret and they were never taken to the courtroom. SEGBİS served exactly this purpose: It facilitated the misuse of recourse to secret witnesses, in order to serve political purposes.
These secret witnesses made false or distorted statements over SEGBIS, and the course of many of the political cases was shaped by their statements.

Who were tried on SEGBİS screens?

In the trials of former HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş and members of the Contemporary Lawyers Association, the use of SEGBİS was imposed on the defendants. Demirtaş, who has been detained in Edirne F Type Prison since November 2016, stood trial for his statements at Nevruz celebrations during the so-called “solution process”. The case was held at the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court. The president of the court, Akın Gürlek, ordered that Demirtaş attend the hearings via SEGBİS.
Demirtaş was not taken to any hearing held at the Istanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan; neither was he brought to the last hearing held in Silivri on September 7, 2018. Demirtaş presented his defense via SEGBİS that day, and his voice was not heard clearly in the courtroom during the trial. His defense was interrupted several times. Demirtaş had to hold the microphone with one hand and his defense documents with the other.
Lawyers from the Contemporary Lawyers Association and People’s Law Office were arrested on September 12, 2017 for their professional activities. The lawyers were placed in eight separate prisons in seven cities. The first hearing was held in September 2018. Shortly before the hearing, the court ordered the defendants to attend via SEGBİS. The pretexts for this decision were the distance to the courtroom, safety concerns, and lack of available vehicles and staff. The arrested lawyers reacted to the decision by starting a hunger strike. The court changed its decision shortly after the strike began, and decided to bring the defendants to the courtroom in person.
Coming to journalists now…

At many trials monitored by the PressInArrest team, the hearings were conducted through SEGBİS as well.
Journalist and writer Ahmet Altan was tried via SEGBİS in many cases. In the retrial process that began after the prison sentences in the FETÖ Media Main Case were overturned by the Court of Cassation, Altan was connected to the hearings through SEGBİS. In fact, the trial was held in Istanbul and Ahmet Altan was detained in Silivri Prison, also in Istanbul. Journalist and writer Nazlı Ilıcak, another defendant in the same trial, was brought to the courtroom in person and she was detained in the Women’s Closed Prison in Bakırköy, Istanbul.
Journalist Nedim Türfent was connected to courtrooms in all his trials via SEGBİS from prison. He had to present his defenses and hear the judicial opinions about him and the prison sentence of 8 years, 9 months over the SEGBİS screen in front of him.
Journalist İdris Sayılğan, who was held in prison pending trial for 1173 days was to be connected to the third hearing of his trial via SEGBİS. However, he could not be connected due to a malfunction in the system. He therefore could not defend himself, but the court nevertheless ordered the continuation of his detention.
Proceedings conducted through SEGBİS are considered by most jurists as a violation of the right to defense. Jurists state that this practice is also in violation of the “principle of face-to-face adjudication”, one of the basic tenets of criminal procedure.
Because, the “principle of face-to-face adjudication” requires that the parties, and especially the accused, be personally present at the trial, learn of accusations and defenses directly, and be heard in front of the judge and next to each other.