On the orders of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office’s Counter-Terrorism Branch, squads launched an operation against the Cumhuriyet newspaper on October 31, 2016.
The editor-in-chief, Murat Sabuncu, as well as the writers Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya and Hakan Kara, the editor of the newspaper’s books supplement Turhan Günay, readers’ representative Güray Tekin Öz, lawyer Bülent Utku and two other employees were taken into custody from their homes.
After learning about the arrest warrants against them, cartoonist Musa Kart, columnist Kadri Gürsel, lawyer Mustafa Kemal Güngor and executive board member Önder Celik turned themselves in to the police.
The newspaper’s writers and executives were arrested on November 5, 2016, on the orders of Judge of the Istanbul 9th Court of Peace. Only the writers Aydın Engin and Hikmet Çetinkaya, along with two other newspaper employees, were released. They were barred from leaving the country.
The newspaper’s Chief Executive Officer, Akın Atalay, was abroad when an arrest warrant was issued against him, and he was arrested on November 12, 2016 upon returning to Turkey.
It later emerged that the prosecutor who was in charge of the investigation, was himself standing trial in the Court of Cassation. He was facing ten charges, including “membership in FETÖ” and “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.” After this information emerged, was recused from the Cumhuriyet trial.
Cumhuriyet reporter Ahmet Şık was taken into custody on December 29, 2016. The charges against him were based on his news articles and tweets. On December 30, 2016, he was arrested based on allegations of “spreading propaganda for the terrorist organizations FETÖ, DHKP/C and PKK.” Şık’s case was later merged with the Cumhuriyet case.
The newspaper’s former editor-in-chief, Can Dündar, and reporter İlhan Tanır were also part of the investigation. However, since Dündar and Tanır were abroad, their cases were separated and their proceedings continued in absentia.
Istanbul’s 27th High Criminal Court accepted the indictment, and the Cumhuriyet trial began on April 19, 2017.
Cumhuriyet’s writers and executives were charged with “aiding and abetting armed terrorist organizations without being a member” and “breaching professional trust.”
The newspaper’s writers and executives were also accused of communicating with individuals who “allegedly used the smartphone application Bylock” or “were being investigated for FETÖ membership.”
Phone calls made by Orhan Erinç, the publisher of Cumhuriyet, cartoonist Musa Kart, and writer Hakan Kara, to a holiday company were presented as evidence of criminal ties. CEO Akın Atalay’s connections to his colleague, lawyer Faik Işık, were also depicted as criminal. In the past, Işık had also served as a lawyer for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The readers’ representative, Güray Tekin Öz, was among the journalists charged with “communicating with an individual investigated for FETÖ membership.” However, that individual was the owner of a pastry shop which Güray Tekin Öz frequented. Articles, headlines and tweets were cited as evidence for the charges.
Some Cumhuriyet employees testified against the writers and executives standing trial.
The first hearing in the Cumhuriyet newspaper trial was held on July 24, 2017, a date celebrated in Turkey as the day of “the abolition of press censorship.” The first hearing lasted five days. At the end of the hearing, Güray Tekin Öz, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara, Turhan Günay, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Bulent Utku and Önder Çelik were released.
At the third hearing on September 25, 2017, Kadri Gürsel was released.
At the hearing on December 25, 2017, journalist Ahmet Şık presented a defense that was harshly critical of the government. Judge, ordered that Şık be removed from the courtroom for “breaching the limits of defense and disrupting order in the court.” In response, Akın Atalay and Murat Sabuncu chose not to present their defenses.
Murat Sabuncu and Ahmet Şık were released at the sixth hearing on March 9, 2018. The court ordered the continuation of Akın Atalay’s detention, with judge, explaining this decision by saying, “The captain is the last to abandon ship, so Mr. Atalay will be staying with us.”
On January 11, 2018, the Constitutional Court announced its verdict on the individual application of Turhan Günay, the editor of Cumhuriyet’s books supplement. The court ruled that Günay’s “right to personal liberty and safety” had been violated.
On April 24, 2018, the second day of the eighth hearing, the court announced its verdict in the case.
Although in the indictment no defendant was accused of “establishing and leading an armed organization,” all defendants were sentenced on this charge.
All defendants were sentenced to prison pursuant to Article 220, Paragraph 7 of the Turkish Penal Code, which proscribed “knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organization without being involved in the hierarchical structure of the organization.”
The court handed down prison sentences of seven years, 13 months and 15 days for Akın Atalay, six years and three months for Orhan Erinç, seven years and six months for Murat Sabuncu, two years and six months for Kadri Gürsel, three years and nine months for Güray Tekin Öz, three years and nine months for Musa Kart, three years and nine months for Hakan Kara, seven years and six months for Aydın Engin, six years and three months for Hikmet Çetinkaya, and seven years and six months for Ahmet Şık.
The court also ordered the release of Akın Atalay upon the announcement of the verdict.
All defendants were absolved from allegations of “breach of professional trust” that were directed against them in the indictment. Turhan Günay and two other newspaper employees were acquitted.
Can Dündar and İlhan Tanır’s cases were separated as they were abroad.
The Appeal Process
The verdicts were appealed, but the Istanbul Regional Court’s Third Criminal Chamber upheld them on February 18, 2019. The court did not find any violations of procedures and issues with the merits of the law in the verdict of the local court. It found no deficiency in the evidence presented and in the proceedings. As such, the prison sentences were upheld.
Due to this decision, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara and Güray Tekin Öz, who had previously been jailed pending trial for nine months, went back to prison, along with two newspaper executives. According to the Code of Criminal Procedure, they could not file an appeal at the Court of Cassation since they were sentenced to less than five years in prison.
Kart, Kara and Öz, together with two other newspaper executives were in Kandıra Prison while their colleagues appealed to the Court of Cassation.
Court of Cassation Proceedings
Those who were handed prison sentences of more than five years by the local court filed an appeal at the Court of Cassation. Pending the Court of Cassation’s 16th Criminal Chamber’s examination of the case, the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Cassation issued a judicial opinion concerning the verdict.
The Office requested that the prison sentences for Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Aydın Engin and Ahmet Şık be overturned, and that all journalists except for Ahmet Şık be acquitted.
In the judicial opinion, the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office asked that Ahmet Şık’s charge be changed from “aiding” a terrorist organization to “praising a terrorist organization, and praising violence” and “spreading propaganda.”
The Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office also said that a possible decision by the Court of Cassation to overturn the verdicts should also encompass Musa Kart, Hakan Kara, Güray Öz Tekin and two newspaper executives, who had gone back to prison after the Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the first verdict.
In light of this judicial opinion, the Court of Cassation’s 16th Criminal Chamber examined the appeal.
The 16th Criminal Chamber completed its examination on September 12, 2019, and reached a verdict in line with the judicial opinion of the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, overturning the prison sentences for Akın Atalay, Orhan Erinç, Murat Sabuncu, Aydın Engin, and Hikmet Çetinkaya, as well as Ahmet Şık.
The chamber also lifted the prison sentences for Güray Tekin Öz, Musa Kart and Hakan Kara, which had been upheld by the Court of Appeal. Öz, Kart and Kara were released but barred from traveling abroad.
The Court of Cassation upheld the prison sentence of three years, one month and 15 days for the newspaper’s accountant Emre İper.
The Chamber overturned the prison sentence of seven years and six months that was handed down to Ahmet Şık by the Court of First Instance, but requested that he stand trial for “legitimizing the actions of a terrorist organization” as per Article 6 of the Counter-Terrorism Law, and for “degrading state institutions” as per Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.
The proceedings for all defendants were scheduled to begin again at İstanbul’s 27th High Criminal Court.
Constitutional Court Proceedings
While they were in prison, the ten Cumhuriyet journalists and executives standing trial filed an individual appeal for violation of rights to the Constitutional Court on December 6, 2016. The Constitutional Court reached a verdict on these applications on May 2, 2019.
It rejected the appeals for violation of rights by Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Güray Tekin Öz, Musa Kart, Hakan Kara, Ahmet Şık and three newspaper executives.
In its verdict on May 2, 2019, the Constitutional Court ruled that only Kadri Gürsel’s “right to personal liberty and safety” and “freedom of expression and the press” had been violated.
European Court of Human Rights Proceedings
On November 9, 2016, the ten writers and executives of the newspaper filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of rights violations. The European Court of Human Rights continues to examine their file.
Trials of all the suspects restarted on November 21, 2019 at Istanbul’s 27th Assize Court.
In the hearing, Kadri Gürsel, Ahmet Şık, Bülent Utku, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Akın Atalay, Aydın Engin, Güray Tekin Öz, Hakan Kara (Karasinir), Musa Kart, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Murat Sabuncu, Orhan Erinç, and Önder Çelik were present.
The hearing began with the identification of the suspects. Then the Presiding Judge read the summary of the Court of Cassation’s decision to overturn the verdicts. After that, the prosecutor asked that the judges uphold the Court of Cassation’s decision to overturn the verdicts.
The presiding judge then stated that he would be giving the stand to the defendants to respond to the request to overturn the verdicts, and said they would be allowed to make final statements later on.
Following the responses by the defendants, the final statements were in order. There was laughter around the courtroom after the Presiding Judge joked, “It’s difficult to hold a trial in Turkey, there are so many procedures.”
The attorneys argued that the final statements should be made once the panel of judges had reached a verdict. Attorney Bahri Belen said, “First the court should reach a verdict, and if the decision to overturn is obeyed, then the final statements should be asked [of the defendants].”
After the objection of the attorneys, the panel of judges decided to take a five-minute break to deliberate on the objection. After the trial resumed, the Presiding Judge ordered that the defendants make their final statements before the verdict was issued, and overruled the attorneys’ objections.
Following the final statements, the panel of judges ordered an hour break before announcing the decision.
The panel ruled against the the Court of Cassation’s decision to overturn the verdicts. Because of its decision to persist in challenging the Court of Cassation’s order, all the previous sentences of the suspects were read out once again. The file will be sent to the General Assembly of Criminal Chambers of the Court of Cassation.
With this decision, Akın Atalay was sentenced to seven years, three months and 15 days of imprisonment. Orhan Erinç was sentenced to six years and three months, Murat Sabuncu to seven years and six months, Güray Tekin Öz to three years and nine months, Musa Kart to three years and nine months, Hakan Kara to three years and nine months, Aydın Engin to seven years and six months, Hikmet Çetinkaya to six years and three months, and Ahmet Şık to seven years and six months of imprisonment.
The panel ruled for Kadri Gürsel’s acquittal.
The Infographics Summary of Cumhuriyet Newspaper Trial