The Republic of Turkey held the structure known as the Fethullah Gülen Congregation responsible for the military coup attempt of 15 July 2016. On 20 July 2016, the National Security Council determined that the military coup attempt “was initiated by FETÖ through its members within the Turkish Armed Forces.”
The structure, which was stated to have secretly organised within government agencies for years, was first described as a “terrorist organisation” by a court in 2014, and later in the recommendations of the National Security Council of 27 May 2016. The National Security Council, which formerly described the structure as an “illegal parallel structure”, named it the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation and Parallel State Structure – FETÖ-PDY” in its July memorandum.
Following the attempted coup, investigations and trials were launched and orders for arrest and detention were issued for many individuals who were claimed to be “affiliated” with this structure. As part of these investigations, a large number of journalists and writers were placed in custody and/or detained in many provinces of Turkey due to allegations of “membership of Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ)” and “knowingly or willingly aiding the organisation despite not being a member of FETÖ”. Investigations and prosecutions were carried out during the State of Emergency (OHAL) declared soon after the attempted coup.
Zaman newspaper, Samanyolu TV, Cihan News Agency and many other newspapers, television and radio channels and internet news portals were shut down on similar allegations by Statutory Decrees (KHK) that were put into effect without parliament’s approval.
One of the people facing an investigation for “being a member of FETÖ” was Vahit Yazgan, the Aegean Region Representative of the Zaman newspaper, which was closed down by a State of Emergency Statutory Decree. He was detained on 8 August 2016 as part of the investigation carried out by the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Ankara.
It was claimed that the investigation was based on an anonymous, unsigned and single-page report to the authorities. It was stated that the letter asserted “Yazgan was one of the FETÖ/PDY managers in Izmir”.
The custody procedures lasted for 17 days. Yazgan was referred to the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Izmir on 25 August 2016. After his questioning at the prosecutor’s office, he was brought before the Judge’s Office of the Izmir 4th Criminal Court of Peace. The court ruled that Yazgan be remanded the same day, 25 August 2016, on the same charges. He was taken to Izmir No.1 Type F Closed Prison.
Yazgan spent eight months and nine days in prison awaiting the indictment concerning him to be completed. Various court rulings asserted that he had active deposit account movements in Bank Asya, which is claimed to be “FETÖ’s financial institution”. It was asserted that his cell phone had been active at the same locations with individuals who were claimed to have “FETÖ affiliation” and were on trial for this reason. It was asserted that “the individuals might have conducted an organisational meeting”. The fact that Yazgan “had his child enrolled in a private school claimed to be affiliated with FETÖ and closed down for this reason” was cited as evidence. It was asserted that “there were records that he had used the ByLock application”. In the Court Of Cassation rulings, the ByLock application was defined as “a communication network developed for the use of FETÖ/PDY armed terrorist organisation members”.
The indictment included a witness statement who testified against Yazgan, saying “He intervened on behalf of FETÖ in relation to appointments made at the level of Izmir Provincial Directorate of Security”. It was asserted that even though he was not a member, Yazgan carried out similar interventions in the administration of the political party Büyük Birlik Partisi (Great Unity Party - BBP).
The indictment stated that Yazgan “had worked as a manager in the Zaman newspaper from 1991 until 2016”. Along with the other allegations, it was asserted that Yazgan “was an administrator of the armed terrorist organisation FETÖ/PDY”.
The indictment which was completed on 4 May 2017 charged Yazgan with “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” in accordance with Article 314/1 of the Turkish Penal Code and Article 5 of the Law on Anti-Terrorism. The prosecution demanded that Yazgan be sentenced to imprisonment of between 15 years and 22 years. The 14th High Criminal Court of Izmir accepted the indictment on 10 May 2017.
The trial commenced with the first hearing at the14th High Criminal Court of Izmir on 1 June 2017. He had been in prison for longer than nine months when he first appeared before the court.
He stated that his position at Zaman newspaper as the publication’s [regional] representative was symbolic and did not involve any administrative duties and that his relations with the newspaper had consisted simply of work, labour and earning a livelihood. He said: “I am a journalist who earns his livelihood intellectually.” He stated that he was not for any congregation, religious order, the [political] right or the left. He said “I am a human first, then an intellectual”. He stated that he was “a journalist who had dedicated his life to democracy” and “he had covered numerous anti-coup reports”.
The charges against Yazgan were changed during the prosecution process. Yazgan had been charged with “the founding or commanding an armed terrorist organisation” in the indictment, and was later charged with “the membership of an armed terrorist organisation” in the opinion of the prosecution as to the accusations presented to the court on 15 February 2018. However, the evidence cited against him in the opinion of the prosecution and the evidence cited in the indictment were similar in content. There was no explanation in the opinion of the prosecution regarding why the charges had been changed. While the indictment had demanded Yazgan be sentenced to imprisonment of between 15 years and 22 years, the opinion of the prosecution demanded imprisonment of between seven years and six months and 15 years.
The fourth and final hearing of the trial took place on 28 February 2018. Yazgan’s statement in the hearing is as follows:
“I think I made mistakes in the past and I regret them. I think I particularly made mistakes regarding Bank Asya and Bylock, and in continuing to work for Zaman newspaper after 17-25 December. I did not know that the ByLock application was objectionable. I was once marginalised because I was not a member of the congregation, yet today I stand trial on charges of being an organisation member. This is saddens me, I am not a member of the congregation. I am not a member of the FETÖ/PDY terrorist organisation, I am a journalist. I do not accept these charges and I demand my acquittal and release”.
The court sentenced Yazgan to eight years and nine months of imprisonment on charges of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” in line with the opinion of the prosecution. Along with the sentence, the court ruled that Yazgan should be remanded in custody. Yazgan had in custody for two years and seven months when the court announced its decision.
The Appeals Process
Vahit Yazgan’s attorney Mehmet Nur Terzi launched an appeal against the ruling with the court of appeals on 2 April 2018. The appeal stated that “journalistic activities cannot be cited as evidence of membership of an armed terrorist organisation”.
The 2nd Penal Chamber of the Izmir Circuit Courts of Appeal, which conducted the appeals process, rejected the application on 18 July 2018.
The Court of Cassation Process
Vahit Yazgan’s attorney launched an appeal with the Court of Cassation against the initial decision of the local court which was later approved by the court of appeals. The appeal demanded that Yazgan be released pending trial and called for a re-trial.
The 16th Penal Chamber of the Court of Cassation rejected the bill of review with its decision dated 26 March 2019. With the Court of Cassation’s decision, the imprisonment sentence of eight years and nine months issued by Izmir 14th High Criminal Court was finalised.
Yazgan had been in prison for two years and nine months when the imprisonment sentence of eight years and nine months was finalised.
The Constitutional Court Process
Vahit Yazgan applied to the Constitutional Court on 14 December 2016 before the indictment concerning him was completed and his trial began.
Yazgan asserted that the detention order concerning him was not legal; the detention period was not reasonable; the arrest warrant concerning him was not legal and reasonable and that his access to the investigation file was restricted. Based on these claims, he demanded the court to identify “a violation of the rights to freedom and security of the individual”.
The Constitutional Court rejected Yazgan’s application with its decision on 15 November 2018.
After the decision of the local court was finalised through the decision of the Court of Cassation, Yazgan launched an appeal at the Constitutional Court for the second time on 28 May 2019.
This time, he demanded the court to identify a “the violation of the right to a fair trial, the right of defence and the freedom of expression and press”. In addition to requesting for a re-trial, he demanded TRY 200,000 in moral compensation.
The Constitutional Court is yet to rule on Yazgan’s second appeal.
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