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”.
Hanım Büşra Erdal, a correspondent for and writer of the now-closed Zaman newspaper, was one of the people under investigation.
Erdal was detained in Manisa on 26 July 2016. She was taken to Istanbul, where the investigation was being conducted. The custody procedures lasted for three days.
Erdal testified at the prosecutor’s office on 29 July 2016. Regarding the fact that Fetullah Gülen’s books were found in her residence, she said: “As an investigative journalist, there is nothing more natural than having works representing all viewpoints in my house”. Expressing that she actively uses social media due to her profession, Erdal stated that her outputs consisted solely of news and comments concerning journalistic activities. Stating that she was never in a position to supports coups, Hanım Büşra Erdal said: “I lent any support to the terrorist organisation to continue its activities, as you claim”.
She was referred to the 1st Court of Peace of Istanbul to be remanded the same day on 29 July 2016. In her statement at the court, she said: “the only profession I engaged in is journalism”. She said that “there was no perception of FETO/PDY terrorist organisation” when she worked at Zaman newspaper. She said “I engaged in journalism, I informed the public. I am not a member of an armed terrorist organisation”. She stated that she was not consulted on the newspaper’s publishing policy.
Erdal was remanded on 29 July 2016 on the charge of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”. She was taken to Bakırköy Closed Women’s Prison in Istanbul.
Erdal spent approximately six months in prison awaiting the indictment concerning him to be completed. The indictment concerning 29 defendants, 27 of whom were journalists, including Erdal, was completed on 16 January 2017.
The indictment concerning 29 defendants, of whom 27 were journalists, including Hanım Büşra Erdal, a correspondent and columnist for the now-closed Zaman newspaper, was completed by the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Istanbul 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 concerning Erdal started on page 158 of the indictment. The indictment cited Erdal’s social media outputs, various articles and books confiscated during house search as evidence.
The indictment listed information on Erdal that stated “she graduated from Yamanlar College, which was shut down over the allegations of being connected to FETO, she started working at Zaman newspaper while she was a university student, reported on the legal and judicial agenda concerning the Ergenekon and Balyoz court cases”. The indictment conveyed that Erdal had written books titled Kafası Karışanlar için Ergenekon [Ergenekon for the Confused] and Tescilli Yalanlar [Registered Lies].
The indictment listed the outputs made subject to accusations against Erdal as follows:
. “Time for promotion on Twitter! Every 500th follower I’ll gift a day of accommodation at Silivri [prison], chance to tour the court, monitor a hearing, breakfast and lunch (;”
. “Because Balyoz women are all blonde, we got confused about whose wife is who. Now they are wearing t-shirts with their spouses’ pictures on them. It’s much easier.”
. “Now it would be great to be in Silivri, with Balyoz women… etc, it’s much more fun there than the news centre (;”
. “If the prostitution and espionage are all stories, lies… It’s definitely Narin entering the headquarters with a hologram.”
. “Tarık Toros after journalists-non-grata Baransu and Karaca… This is an obvious, public case of fabricating crimes, how much are we aware of the danger?”
. (citing the T24 website and posting a picture of the terrorist leader as he gives an interview) “Gülen: Let an international commission investigate the coup and we will accept the results.”
. Retweeting the tweet posted by @t24comtr that states “Gülen: Let an international commission investigate the coup and we will accept the results.”
The indictment also cited among evidence Erdal’s outputs regarding the process of a public administrator being appointed to the management of Zaman newspaper.
The indictment listed some of Erdal’s articles published in Zaman newspaper as “ some examples aimed at altering perceptions” The indictment listed the headlines of said articles as follows:
. Article dated 15 July 2016, with the headline “Turkish Jurisdiction in Love with Handcuffs”
. Article dated 14 July 2016, with the headline “High Judiciary with Its Head Low”
. “Censorship and the black cat in a dark room”
. Article dated 12 July 2016, with the headline “How much are we aware of the danger?”
. Article dated 8 July 2016, with the headline “Who is the Real Mankurt [mindless slave]?”
. Article dated 21 March 2013, with the headline “Ergenekon: the biggest terrorism investigation in which evidence led to defendants’”
. Article dated 12 March 2016, with the headline “Not even the dead are safe in this country”.
The indictment also stated that 22 separate books authored by Fetullah Gülen were confiscated during the house search in Erdal’s residence.
Erdal’s attendance to protests that took place when an administrator was appointed to Zaman newspaper’s management was also assessed among “elements of crime”. The indictment asserted that Erdal “dubbed the operations against FETO conspiracies”.
The indictment charged Erdal with “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” in line with Article 314/2 of the Turkish Penal Code. The prosecution demanded that Erdal be sentenced to imprisonment of between five years and 10 years. It was also demanded that Erdal “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 people, of whom 27 were journalists, including Hanım Büşra Erdal, 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. Erdal had been in prison for approximately eight months when she first stood trial.
Attorney Ali Deniz Ceylan stated that the president of the court for the trial had detained Hanım Büşra Erdal along with Atilla Taş, Murat Aksoy and Mutlu Çölgeçen when he served as a 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 the 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 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 Hanım Büşra Erdal to the 13 people who were demanded to be released pending trial. The court prohibited the journalists from travelling abroad.
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 judgment. 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, including Erdal, who were released by the court even though the prosecutor had not demanded their release the same day on 31 March 2017.
The prosecutor for the hearing asserted in its objection regarding the release of the eight journalists whose release had not been demanded by the prosecution “evidence against the defendants was not collected fully” and “the release order was non-procedural and illegal”.
The prosecutor’s demand was processed on 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, 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”.
Thus, none of the journalists for whom release orders were issued were released on 31 March 2017.
12 of the 13 journalists who were detained again after their release were brought before the court on 14 April 2017 after custody procedures. They were remanded the same day on charges of “attempting to destroy the constitutional order” and “attempting to destroy the Government of the Republic of Turkey” by the 2nd Criminal Court of Peace of Istanbul.
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, 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 July 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 who were ordered to be released at the first hearing of the trial, but were detained again as part of a new investigation was presented to the court on 5 June 2017.
The indictment charged the journalists 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 accordance with Article 309/1 and 312/1 of the Turkish Penal Code. The prosecution demanded that journalists be sentenced to two aggravated life sentences.
The first hearing of the trial for the second indictment took place on 16-18 August 2017. The court ordered the prosecution 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 hearing began with the president of the court reading the documents received by the court.
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 continue to be held in remand.
The third hearing of the trial took place on 6-8 February 2018. The journalists made their defensive statements against the expert report regarding the confiscated digital materials.
Stating her correspondence was searched for that terms such as “abi [older brother]”, “abla [older sister]” and “maklube [an Arabic dish cooked mostly in the provinces of Siirt and Mardin; known for being served at meetings held in the houses of the Gülen Congregation], Hanım Büşra Erdal said “I have never said that I did not know the congregation. I started working at Zaman newspaper in 2002, and worked there for 10-15 years. But, I have only pursued my job. I have never been involved in any hierarchy. I have never used the word ‘abi [older brother]’ for any person except my colleagues. I never wore the congregation’s colours at Zaman. I will not put on FETO colours at this court either.”
Erdal’s attorney Ümit Kardaş stated that the crime of “membership of an organisation” was only applicable for “organisations that were established to carry out terrorist acts”, however the organisation referred to as “FETO/PDY” was previously known as a congregation and acted legally. Kardaş said, “When did this organisation become an armed terrorist organisation and when should the defendants have realised this? This matter should be clarified.”
The prosecutor presented the opinion of the prosecution as to the accusations at this hearing.
The opinion of the prosecution demanded that Erdal be sentenced on the charge of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”.
The final hearing of the trial took place on 7-8 March 2018. The defendants who did not make defensive statements against the opinion of the prosecution presented their statements during the sessions that lasted for two days.
Erdal’s attorney Ümit Kardaş also presented a statement. Kardaş stated that “the accusations and facts that were cited as evidence belonged to a period where conflicts had not yet arisen between the Fethullah Gülen movement and the current government “. Stating that the Gülen movement was identified to have become a terrorist organisation for the first time by the Council of Minister’s decision and the following statement on 30 May 2016, Kardaş said, “The report by the Venice Commission has pointed out the ambiguity regarding when the Gülen Congregation had become a terrorist organisation. This ambiguity may lead to rulings which prove contrary to the prohibition of retroactive application of the law, and thus may create injustices.”
In her defensive statement, Erdal stated that the prosecution of correspondents and low-level personnel of Zaman newspaper were “unlawful”, considering the managers of the newspaper had already fled.
The defendants were then asked about their final say. Erdal’s final statement is as follows:
“I want to travel in time back to 31 March. I hope the prosecutor won’t object. I my have worked at Zaman or at another newspaper, I may have have been a leftist. I expressed my opinions lawfully. I thought those people were right. But then we experienced 15 July and it seems that the crime was laid on us. I paid a price. You owe us our release on 31 March 2017. I demand to repayment of this debt. This is the one seat where I don’t belong. I hope all this ends and I get to reunite with my family.”
Following the final say, the panel of judges delivered its ruling.
Hanım Büşra Erdal was sentenced to imprisonment of six years and three months on the charge of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”.
The court ruled that Erdal should continue to be held in remand.
The Appeals Process
The correspondent for the now-closed Zaman newspaper Hanım Büşra Erdal’s attorneys 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 Chamber rejected the appeal 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
Hanım Büşra Erdal’s attorneys brought the ruling approved by the court of appeals before the Court of Cassation.
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 Hanım Büşra Erdal was approved by the Chamber.
The imprisonment sentence concerning Erdal was then finalised. Erdal had been in prison for more than three years and seven months when the imprisonment sentence of six years and three months was finalised.
Erdal has been serving her sentence as a convict at Istanbul Bakırköy Women Prison.
The Constitutional Court Process
Journalist Hanım Büşra Erdal filed an application with the Constitutional Court while being tried in remand on 4 October 2017. Erdal claimed that “the right to freedom and security” and “the right to a fair trial” had been violated. The Constitutional Court rejected Erdal’s claims of right violations with its ruling on 9 June 2020.
Trial of the case, where along with Erdal, 29 suspects, 27 of whom were journalists, were being tried, started with the first hearing held between March 27 and 31, 2017.
26 detainee and 1 suspect who was released and pending trial, including Erdal were present at the first hearing. Suspects Said Sefa and Bülent Ceyhan, who were being tried in their absence, were not present at the hearing. The only released suspect, Ünal Tanık’s wife M.T. was present at the hearing as well.
At the hearing attorney Ali Deniz Ceylan reminded that the presiding judge, had given an arrest decision against Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu, Atilla Taş, Murat Aksoy and Mutlu Çölgeçen while he was a judge at Istanbul 1st Criminal Court of Peace.
Attorney Ceylan, stating that according to the present laws, a judge who took part in the investigation process can not take part in the prosecution process, and requested the presiding judge to give up the case. This request was denied. After that attorney Ceylan made a request of “recusation”. Court board denied this request of “recusation” on the grounds of “being out of procedures”.
At the first hearing wanted to take defence arguments of the suspects without having the indictment read.
Attorney, Gülşah Kaya, said “I request that the indictment is read”. Presiding judge interrupted attorney Kaya. After that attorney Kaya said, “Hearing can’t go on mutually this way. I make a request and you make a decision. At least you are obliged to summarise the indictment.”. However the presiding judge did not respond to that.
The indictment was not read. However it was written as read in the court records. Attorney Ömer Kavili requested that the records show that it was a “false statement”. Court board didn’t respond as the viewers applauded Kavili. Following the applauds presiding judge reacted and asked “Who are you applauding?”
At the first hearing detained journalist/writers Ahmet Memiş, Abdullah Kılıç, Atilla Taş, Ali Akkuş and Bayram Kaya presented their defence arguments.*
Decisive hearing of the case was held on March 31, 2017. Prosecutor of the case requested the release of 13 suspects. Court board, ruled for the release of 21 of the 26 detained suspects including these 13. However before these releases happened, prosecutor’s office objected the decision. Prosecutor’s objection was approved by Istanbul 26th Assize Court. 8 journalists who were meant to be released, were taken into custody before leaving the prison. 13 journalists who were released had an arrest warrant against them with the scope of a new investigation for “attempted coup”.
The court board that gave the release decision at the first hearing was suspended on April 3, 2017.
Second hearing of the case took place on April 27th, 2017. In this hearing journalists were tried before a new committee of judges as the previous committee was suspended. At the end of the hearing 20 suspects were ruled for the continuation of their detention.
3rd hearing of the case was held on July 6, 2017. Court board was once again changed at this hearing. Suspects were decided to continue their detention at this hearing as well.
While the trial was ongoing, a second indictment, against 13 journalists who were arrested again for “attempted coup”, was presented to the court. The indictment was approved by the court. First hearingg of this case was held on August 16, 2017. 13 suspects of the new accusation were present at the hearing. At the end of the hearing it was ruled that both of these cases were to be consolidated and continue as one.
First hearing was held on October 24, 2017, after the cases were consolidated. After the reports on whether the suspects used Bank Asya and ByLock, suspect journalists and their attorneys made brief statements. According to the Bank Asya report, 6 of the suspects did not have an account at Bank Asya, accounts of 4 suspects at Bank Asya were “suspicious”, and the rest of the suspects did have accounts at the Bank however there were no movements against the natural flow of life, in these accounts.
At the end of the trial 2 suspects were released.
Next hearing of the consolidated case took place on December 4, 2018. At the end of the hearing, court board ruled for the continuation of the detention of all 20 journalists.
At the 3rd hearing of the case on February 6, 2018 suspects made statements on the reports that were prepared by experts about the digital material that belongs to the suspects. Suspect Hanım Büşra Erdal, pointing out that words such as “abi(bother)”, “abla(sister)” and “maklube” were searched in her conversations, said “I never said I don’t know the (Gülen) Congregation. I started working at Zaman Newspaper in 2002, worked there for 10-15 years. But I just did my job, and never got involved in any type of hierarchy. I never called anyone abi(brother) except my co-workers. I have never worn the congregation’s shirt at Zaman. And I will not wear that shirt here at this court either.”
Erdal’s Attorney Ümit Kardaş claimed that according to the law, the crime of “being a member of an organisation” was against organisations that were aiming to do terrorist acts, and the organisation called “FETÖ/PDY” was formerly known as the congregation and did legal acts. Kardaş said “When did this organisation became an armed terrorist organisation and when could the defendants realise that? This needs to be clarified here.”
At this hearing prosecution has presented its opinion as to the accusations. Prosecutor requested accusations of “disrupting the Constitutional Order” to be dropped on the case that was opened against 13 defendants. Prosecutor requested Erdal to be punished for committing the crime of “membership of an organisation”.
Attorneys that took the floor after prosecutor’s opinion, reacted to the fact that a punishment asked even though the digital reports and other evidences are on their clients’ favor. Majority of the attorneys also pointed out that there was no concrete evidence that supported the claims of “membership of terrorist organisation” against their clients. In this hearing detainee Halil İbrahim Balta was decided to be released with a judicial control condition, due to his health issues.
*4th hearing of the case was held on February 22-23.
Decisive hearing of the case took place on March 7-8, 2018. During the sittings that lasted for 2 days, suspects who haven’t already made their pleas opposing the prosecutors opinion have made their pleas.
Erdal’s attorney Ümit Kardaş has also made statements. Kardaş, emphasised that most of the allegations and incidents were from a time when there was no conflict between Fethullah Gülen Movement and Government. Kardaş then said “Gülen Movement is declared as a terrorist organisation for the first time after the Cabinet Decision and following statement on May 30, 2016” and added “Venice Commision’s Report has drawn attention to the uncertainty about when the Gülen Congregation has turned into a terror organisation. This uncertainty is against the non-retroactivity of the crimes and punishments and therefore may cause injustice.”
Erdal in her defence statement pointed that it was “unjust” judging and punishing reporters and lower level employees while all the managers of the Zaman Newspaper have fled the country. Then suspects were asked to make their closing arguments. Erdal’s last words were as follows:
“I want to teleport to March 31. I wish the prosecutor to not to object. I could have worked in any other newspaper, as well as Zaman, I may be following leftist opinions, I declared my thoughts in legal ways.I thought those people were right. But then July 15th(coup attempt) happened and that crime reflected on us. I have paid a price.You owe our release on March 31, 2017 to us. I demand what I’m owed. This is the most wrong chair I have been in. I hope this ends and I reunite with my family.”
After all the final arguments, court board has revealed the verdict.
The decision acquitted Hanım Büşra Erdal of “attempting to abolish the constitutional order” and “attempting to abolish, the Government of the Republic of Turkey or replace or prevent the fulfilment of its duties” crimes. However Erdal was sentenced to 6 years 3 months of imprisonment for “membership of a terrorist organisation”. 11 journalists along with Erdal were sentenced *to the same punishment for committing the same crime.
The court sentenced other 12 suspects to a 7 years and 6 months of imprisonment due to “the characteristics of the crime and the intensity of the intention for crime” for “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”.
2 journalists were” sentenced to 2 years 1 month and 3 years 1 month 15 days of imprisonment for “knowingly and willingly taking aiding an organisation without taking part in its hierarchical structure”. *One suspect was acquitted.
With the decision, detained suspects were not released.
After the reasoned judgement was made, a request was made to the appeal court. Istanbul Regional Court of Justice 2nd Criminal Chambers have approved the verdict, with the decision made on October 22, 2018. The court ruled that the convicts were to continue their detention. The Appeal Court decision that was made without a hearing agains the requests of a hearing by the attorneys, declared that the evidence given in the files were appropriate and enough to prove the crime and local court decision was according to the law.
Supreme Court of Appeal Process
Decision against 22 journalists along with Erdal was appealed at the Court of Cassation. Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Court of Cassation requested the rejection of the appeal.said that the procedural processes were made according to the law and requested the sentences to be approved. File is waiting to be finalised at the Court of Cassation.
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