Halil İbrahim Balta was the economics correspondent for the now-closed Zaman newspaper.
The newspaper was initially appointed a public administrator by court order. The newspaper was then “entirely” shut down by a statutory decree issued as part of the State of Emergency rule declared following the military coup attempt on 15 July 2016. During the state of emergency period, the government shut down many media outlets by statutory decrees that were put into effect without the parliament’s approval.
Balta was detained on 2 August 2016 on allegations of “being affiliated with FETÖ media structure” as part of the investigation launched by the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Istanbul. Balta was placed in custody the same day on the charge of “membership of an armed organisation”. He was taken to the Silivri Closed High Security Prison.
Balta spent approximately five months in prison awaiting the indictment to be prepared. The indictment which was completed on 16 January 2017 charged Balta with “membership of an armed organisation”. The prosecution demanded that Balta be sentenced to imprisonment of between five years and 10 years.
The court ruled Balta to be released pending trial at the first hearing on 27-31 March 2017. However, the prosecutor’s office objected to his release. Following the approval of the objection, Balta was placed in custody again before having been released from prison.
The court ruled Balta to be released under “judicial supervision” on grounds of poor health at the third hearing of the trial on 8 February 2018. He had been in prison for more than eighteen months when he was released.
At the end of the trial, Balta was sentenced to imprisonment of six years and three months on the charge of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” on 8 March 2018.
The court of appeals approved the imprisonment sentence on 22 October 2018. The Court of Cassation finalised the sentence on 16 March 2020.
The Republic of Turkey held the structure known as the Fethullah Gülen Congregation responsible for the military coup attempt of 15 July 2016. The National Security Council determined on 20 July 2016 that the military coup attempt “was initiated by FETÖ via 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 the similar allegations by Statutory Decrees (KHK) that were put into effect without the parliament’s approval.
In this context, Terrorism and Organised Crime Investigation Bureau of the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Istanbul launched an investigation against 89 journalists and media workers on allegations of “membership of FETÖ/PDY”. The names of people who were placed in custody and the details of the investigation were communicated through the public broadcaster Anadolu Agency, and published on the website of Sabah newspaper.
Although many journalists were detained under the same investigation in July 2016, they stood trial based on different indictments. For example, Mümtazer Türköne, Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç and many other journalists stood trial as part of the “Zaman Newspaper Court Case”, whereas Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Bülent Keneş, Mehmet Kamış and many other journalists were tried within the case publicly known as the “Subliminal Coup Messages Court Case”.
Halil İbrahim Balta, a correspondent for the now-closed Zaman newspaper, was one of the people under investigation.
Balta was detained on 2 August 2016. He was taken to the Gayrettepe Public Security Branch Office in Istanbul.
Balta was referred to the court following the procedures at the security directorate on 2 August 2016. He was referred to the court to be remanded following the prosecutor’s questioning.
Balta was placed in custody the same day following the court’s questioning. He was charged with “membership of an armed organisation”. He was taken to the Silivri Closed High Security Prison.
Balta spent approximately five months in prison awaiting the indictment to be prepared. The indictment concerning 29 people, 27 of whom were journalists, including Halil İbrahim Balta, was completed on 16 January 2017.
The indictment concerning 29 people, 27 of whom were journalists including Halil İbrahim Balta, a correspondent for the now-closed Zaman newspaper, was completed on 16 January 2017. The indictment consisted of 196 pages.
112 pages of the indictment listed allegations against the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation / Parallel State Structure (FETÖ-PDY)”. This part was identical with the texts in indictments prepared for similar cases.
The allegations against Balta started on page 155 of the indictment. This section of the indictment provided information that Balta had worked at the now-closed Zaman newspaper obtained from open source findings. The indictment cited Balta’s social media outputs and his bank account activities as evidence.
The indictment asserted the following concerning the social media outputs:
“Setting the agenda against the Republic of Turkey in line with FETÖ/PDY at home and abroad on the Twitter website, by re-sharing (retweeting) posts sent by the ‘Fuat Avni’ account which was one of the most effective accounts created to form a basis for the activities of FETÖ/PDY and for the coup attempt on the night of 15 July 2016, and creating public opinion against the Republic of Turkey at home and abroad.”
The indictment listed Balta’s following social media outputs, which were asserted to constitute elements of crime:
.“Fatih Tezcan, a high-quality hypocrite, who says the congregation has ties with ISIS, but has his photograph taken with ISIS commanders”, “Interfaith dialogue cannot happen if it’s not in line with Islam, but can happen if Tayyip Erdoğan wants, is that right President of Religious Affairs Görmez?”
.“THE ATTORNEYS OF F GÜLEN We condemn the treacherous junta attempt, no ifs or buts.”
.“Retweeting the post sent by … [redacted in the indictment], ‘Fetullah Gülen gave an interview to international media organisations. We will broadcast it later.’“
.“ATV [a Turkish television channel] is at the moment elaborating that ‘fuatavni’ was caught, people who do not follow the account on Twitter are watching mouths agape.”
.“The AKP unfortunately makes the public and the military confront each other.”
(The statements in social media outputs quote the indictment verbatim.)
The indictment asserted the following concerning this output: “All politicians including the President called the public to stand against the coup and condemned the coup during the coup attempt of 15 July 2016. However, the organisation members who attempted the coup tried to prevent people from going out on the streets.”
The indictment also asserted that Balta “had shared outputs to create public opinion” concerning the investigation regarding the trucks that carried arms from Turkey to Syria and that allegedly belonged to the MİT [National Intelligence Organisation].
It was asserted concerning Balta’s outputs regarding the MİT investigation and appointment of public administrators to newspapers that “he had described and discredited the investigations as part of the efforts against the organisation as ‘extortion’”. The indictment asserted that Balta “had acted on behalf of the organisation”. Prosecutor Çağlak asserted that Balta had later deleted some of his social media outputs.
In addition, 22 books written by Fetullah Gülen that were confiscated during a search of Balta’s house were cited as evidence.
According to the indictment, during the investigation process, Balta stated that he had worked as an economics correspondent for Zaman newspaper for 23 years, since 1993. He stated that he started working as an economics correspondent for Yarına Bakış newspaper following the closure of Zaman newspaper.
The indictment charged Balta with “membership of an armed organisation” in accordance with Article 314/2 of the Turkish Penal Code. The prosecution demanded that Balta be sentenced to imprisonment of between five years and 10 years. It was also demanded that Balta “be deprived of the enjoyment of certain rights” in accordance with Article 53 of the Turkish Penal Code.
The indictment was accepted by the 25th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
The trial concerning 29 individuals, of whom 27 were journalists, including Halil İbrahim Balta, a correspondent for the now-closed Zaman newspaper, commenced with the first hearing at the 25th High Criminal Court of Istanbul on 27-31 March 2017.
Attorney Ali Deniz Ceylan stated that the president of the court for the trial had detained Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu along with Atilla Taş, Murat Aksoy and Mutlu Çölgeçen when he served as the judge for the 1st Court of Peace of Istanbul.
Stating that a judge who had served during the investigation process cannot serve during the trial process under the current law, attorney Ceylan demanded the president of the court’s recusal. The demand was rejected. Ceylan then demanded a “judicial disqualification”. The panel of judges unanimously rejected the demand for judicial disqualification on the grounds of it being “non-procedural”.
At the first hearing, the president of the court wanted to receive the defendants’ statements before the indictment was read.
Attorney Gülşah Kaya said: “I want the indictment to be read”. The president of the court interrupted attorney Kaya’s words. Upon this, Kaya said: “A hearing does not proceed with this sort of back and forth exchange. I make a demand, and you make a decision. You at least have the responsibility to summarise the indictment”. However, the president of the court did not respond to the demand.
The indictment was not read. However, the statement “the indictment was read” was written in court minutes. Attorney Ömer Kavili demanded “Let the minutes reflect that this is a false statement”. The panel of judges did not respond. Spectators applauded Kavili. In response to the applause, the president of the court reacted by saying: “Who do you think you’re applauding?”
The final hearing of the trial took place on 31 March 2017. The prosecutor for the hearing demanded that 13 journalists be released pending trial. The court added eight more journalists, including Halil İbrahim Balta, to the 13 people to be released pending trial. Thus, 21 journalists were released.
A series of developments took place on 31 March 2017 when the ruling was declared and the early hours of the following day.
Cem Küçük, who wrote columns for newspapers known to have adopted a pro-government publishing policy, stated the following in his social media account: “Every prosecutor and judge will be discharged from duty who ordered the release of apparent FETÖ members. This is the state’s definitive judgement. Everybody should know it”. He also stated the following: “The Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors started to take action. God willing, the traitors will not be set free.”
The prosecutor for the hearing objected to the release of eight journalists, who were released by the court even though the prosecutor had not demanded their release, including Balta, the same day on 31 March 2017. The prosecutor for the hearing asserted in the objection regarding the release of the eight journalists whose release had not been demanded by the prosecution that “evidence against the defendants was not collected fully” and “the release order was nonprocedural and illegal”.
The prosecutor’s demand was processed the same day by the 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, the upper court for the 25th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, which issued the release order. Despite the release order, the eight journalists were not released from prison and were remanded in custody again.
On the other hand, a new investigation commenced the same day concerning the 13 journalists whose release the prosecutor for the hearing had demanded and the court ruled accordingly. The journalists were charged with “attempting a coup” and “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”. After being detained during the custody procedures that lasted for 14 days, the journalists were remanded in custody over the charges of “attempting to destroy the constitutional order” and “attempting to destroy the Government of the Republic of Turkey” on 14 April 2017.
Thus, none of the journalists for whom release orders were issued were released on 31 March 2017.
The president and two members of the panel of judges who issued the release orders for 21 journalists at the first hearing of the trial were suspended by the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors. Cem Küçük, who wrote columns for newspapers known to have adopted a pro-government publishing policy, had stated the following in his social media account: “Every prosecutor and judge will be discharged from duty who ordered the release of apparent FETÖ members”.
Following these incidents, the second hearing of the trial took place on 27 April 2017.
At this hearing, the court heard witnesses testify about the journalists.
The third hearing of the trial took place on 6 June 2017. The panel of judges rejected in its interim decision the demands of remanded journalists and their attorneys to be released at the end of the hearing.
Meanwhile, the second indictment concerning the 13 journalists, including Halil İbrahim Balta, who were ordered to be released at the end of the first hearing of the trial, but were detained again as part of a new investigation, was presented to the same court on 5 June 2017.
The journalists were charged with “attempting to destroy the constitutional order by means of coercion and violence” and “attempting to destroy the Government of the Republic of Turkey by means of coercion and violence” in line with Articles 309/1 and 312/1 of the Turkish Penal Code. The prosecution demanded that the journalists be sentenced to two aggravated life sentences.
The first hearing of the trial for the second indictment took place on 16 August 2017. The court ordered the trial concerning the journalists to continue by merging the two indictments.
The first hearing of the trial that continued after the two indictments were merged took place on 24-25 October 2017. The panel of judges had changed for the third time at this hearing of the trial.
The second hearing of the trial that continued after the two indictments were merged took place on 3-4 December 2017. Six witnesses were heard at the hearing. The court ruled that all remanded defendants should be kept in remand.
The third hearing of the trial took place on 8 February 2018. The prosecutor presented the opinion of the prosecution as to the accusations in this hearing.
The opinion of the prosecution demanded that Halil İbrahim Balta be sentenced over the charge of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”.
The court ruled that Balta be released under judiciary supervision on grounds of poor health.
The final hearing of the trial took place on 7-8 March 2018. Defensive statements against the opinion of the prosecution were heard in the two-day-long sessions. The defendants then presented their final statements. Balta’s final statement was: “I’m not in prison, and if I die, I’ll die at home. I demand my acquittal”. The panel of judges delivered its ruling on 8 March 2018.
The panel of judges ruled that Balta be sentenced to imprisonment of six years and three months on charges of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”.
The Appeals Process
Journalist Halil İbrahim Balta launched an appeal against the imprisonment sentence at the court of appeals.
The appeals process was carried out by the 2nd Penal Chamber of the Istanbul Circuit Courts of Appeals. The Chamber delivered its ruling on 22 October 2018.
The appeal was rejected in substance. The Chamber found that the ruling of the local court was lawful according to the methods and procedures. It was asserted that “the evidence in the file was sufficient for establishing the crime”.
The Court of Cassation Process
Journalist Halil İbrahim Balta brought the ruling approved by the court of appeals before the Court of Cassation.
In its written opinion, the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Court of Cassation demanded the dismissal of the appeal. The Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office demanded the approval of the sentences of the journalists on the grounds that the trial had been carried out lawfully.
The Court of Cassation appeal of the journalists, including Balta, was resolved on 16 March 2020. The appellate review carried out by the 16th Penal Chamber of the Court of Cassation approved Balta’s imprisonment sentence. The ruling was unanimous.
The appeals process was conducted by the 16th Penal Chamber of the Court of Cassation. The attorneys demanded that the appeals process be conducted by means of hearings. However, their demands were rejected. The Chamber delivered its ruling on 16 March 2020.
The imprisonment sentence concerning Halil İbrahim Balta was approved by the Chamber.
The Court of Cassation ruled that the procedures concerning the journalists were carried out lawfully, all evidence was collected in accordance with the law, and the defensive statements were heard in full. It was stated that the ruling was based on unequivocal, consistent and non-conflicting data.
The imprisonment sentence concerning Balta was then finalised. Balta had been in prison for three years and seven months when the imprisonment sentence was finalised.
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