Çetinkaya started his professional career at the Cumhuriyet Newspaper in 1942. He wrote columns for a long time. He published critical reports and books on the Fethullah Gülen Congregation. He left his position at the Cumhuriyet Newspaper on Sept. 7, 2018. Çetinkaya was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months of prison in the Cumhuriyet trial. Çetinkaya’s lawyers appealed to the Court of Cassation.
The Court of Cassation ruled to reverse the decision about Çetinkaya.
Upon the request of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul 5th Criminal Court of Peace ruled for an arrest warrant for the Cumhuriyet newspaper’s managers and employees on Oct. 31, 2016. Hikmet Çetinkaya, a 74-year-old columnist for the Cumhuriyet newspaper was among them.
Çetinkaya was arrested in Istanbul on Oct. 31, 2016, and taken to the Istanbul Security Directorate Anti-Terrorism Branch Office.
Çetinkaya testified to Murat İnam, the prosecutor who has been conducting the investigation on Nov. 5, 2016.
In his testimony Çetinkaya said, “he has been writing articles about Fethullah Gülen’s aim to establish an Islamic State in the Republic of Turkey, his roots, activities, organization, that he puts students in military school with fake health reports, that he has infiltrated the state’s institutions since 1971” and noted that he doesn’t have any knowledge about whether the Cumhuriyet newspaper took sponsorships or advertisements from companies that were affiliated with that organization.
After his interrogation, the prosecutor İnam sent Çetinkaya to the court with a request of judicial control. The Istanbul 9th Criminal Court of Peace ruled to release Çetinkaya with a travel ban under judicial control on Nov. 5, 2016.
While the investigation was continuing, it was revealed that the prosecutor of the investigation, Murat İnam was prosecuted for 10 different crimes, including “attempting to abolish the Constitutional order” and “being a member of FETÖ,” in the Court of Cassation’s 16th Penal Chamber. After that, Mehmet Akif Ekinci, the deputy of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor, and Yasemin Baba, a junior prosecutor with the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, were appointed to the file.
Mehmet Akif Ekinci, the deputy of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor and Yasemin Baba, a junior prosecutor with the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued the Cumhuriyet indictment on April 3, 2017. In the indictment, Çetinkaya was charged for “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly, although he does not belong to the structure of that organization” (TPC 220/7) and was demanded up to 15 years of prison.
In the indictment, it was claimed that despite the fact that he has been known for his critical views on FETÖ/PDY [Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure which is the name for the followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist living in self-imposed exile in the US that is accused of orchestrating the 15th of July coup attempt],” Çetinkaya “attended an event of the Journalists and Writers Foundation” [“Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı” which was shut down with a presidential decree after the 15th of July coup attempt] and since then “his approach to the organization changed.” In the indictment it was also claimed that in his article titled “Hocaefendi nasıl terörist oldu” [“How the Hodjaefendi (‘Esteemed Teacher’) became a terrorist” published in the Cumhuriyet newspaper on April 19, 2016], “he was trying to explain why the organization which he knew very well cannot be affiliated with terrorism.”
The first hearing of the trial was held in the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court on July 24, 2017. Çetinkaya defended himself on July 27th. In his defense, Çetinkaya noted that he has been working for the Cumhuriyet newspaper for the past 51 years and answered the accusations in the following terms:
“I will never deviate from the principles of a secular, democratic, law-based state. I have reported news and conducted interviews in all areas of life. I continue to serve as a columnist for the paper. One of my first important reports was on Fethullah Gülen. I could convince nobody that he had set up his formation that started in Bornova and his appointment as preacher at Izmir Kestanepazarı Mosque and was organizing in the Akevler Construction Cooperative, Yaman High School, Maltepe Military Academy, and the Işıklar and Kuleli High Schools with false health reports, and they did not want to believe it. All the ruling political parties said how the brotherhood was innocent and how I was wrong. They brought penal proceedings against me for opposing the ‘Hodjaefendi’ in my writing. I have been prosecuted in 170 criminal trials. I was acquitted in some of them. And in some of them, I got penal fines and prison sentences. In the years in which I reported on his formations in the police, judiciary, and education, Turkey did not know him. Gülen was tried under the notorious Article 163 of the Turkish Penal Code in the 12 March period charged with overthrowing the secular, democratic, law-based state and establishing an Islamic state. He was convicted, escaped with a pardon and they forgot.”
“I have been a defendant and been on trial in many penal proceedings. Gülen constantly submitted complaint petitions about me and filed suits for damages. But, we as the Cumhuriyet newspaper continued to write undaunted. For years, we pointed out the magnitude of the threat he posed for the Republic of Turkey. We exposed the true face of this imam who until 15th of July, 2016 was getting a pension from the state.”
Çetinkaya stated he never said or wrote anywhere that Gülen is not a terrorist organization and continued as follows:
“If the prosecutors are curious, the news and columns I wrote were quoted in the State Security Court prosecutor’s indictment of Gülen . They can find it and read it. Gülen was tried for establishing and managing an organization thanks to opinions of mine that I had put forward. I am now being tried for aiding and abetting FETO in the indictment of prosecutors who have forgotten the past. My writing and news reports are my defense against and interrogation of the indictment. I reject such an indictment that flies in the face of the normal course of affairs on behalf of myself, my writing, my deeds, and my newspaper.”
The seventh hearing of the trial was held on March 16, 2018. In the hearing the prosecutor, Hacı Hasan Bölükbaşı explained his opinion of the accusations. Bölükbaşı recommended sentencing Çetinkaya for the charges of “aiding terrorist organizations” and asked for up to 15 years of prison.
The final hearing of the trial was held in Silivri Prison on April 24, 2018. In his last words, Çetinkaya said that:
“I have been working as a journalist in the Cumhuriyet newspaper for the past 52 years. I wrote about Fethullah Gülen’s ambition to abolish the secular and democratic state of law and establish an Islamic state in Turkey in the Cumhuriyet newspaper, years ago. It wasn’t enough, so I continued to republish my previous articles in the Cumhuriyet newspaper. I reject all the accusations regarding aiding and abetting Gülen. I am a journalist. And journalism is not a crime. The real criminals are the ones who want to establish Sharia law.”
The court reached a verdict on April 25, 2018. In its verdict, the court found Hikmet Çetinkaya guilty for “aiding and abetting terrorist organizations PKK, DHKP-C, and FETÖ/PDY knowingly and willingly, although he does not belong to the structure of those organizations” and sentenced him to 6 years and 3 months of prison.
In the reasoning of the verdict, the court claimed that “the defendant as a board member of the Cumhuriyet Foundation he kept silent against the shifting editorial policy of the newspaper, changes in the positions and publications in favor of the organization, therefore he showed a affirmative declaration of intent.” And also it was claimed that “the defendant, especially contrary to his known stance and views after contacting the Journalists and Writers Foundation, he started to write articles that were whitewashing the organization and stated that they [Gulenists] have never been terrorists.”
The Istanbul Regional Court of Justice’s 3rd Penal Chamber approved the verdict on Feb. 18, 2019. The defense attorneys appealed the verdict to the Court of Cassation’s 16th Penal Chamber on Feb. 26, 2019.
The Court of Cassation
Mücahit Erdoğan and Turan Kuloğlu, the public prosecutors of the Court of Cassation, presented their letter of notification about the file to the 16th Penal Chamber on July 16, 2019. They demanded the reversal of the decision.
In the letter of notification, it was emphasized that Hikmet Çetinkaya was the board member of the Cumhuriyet Foundation and he was also a columnist for the newspaper.
It was stated in the letter of notification that the authors of the articles published in the newspaper are identified, thus, they don’t belong to Çetinkaya or the other managers of the foundation. There is no evidence that Çetinkaya shares the ideas of the articles which are subject to the judicial process. Therefore, he cannot be held responsible for this.
It was also stated in the notification that Çetinkaya’s own articles do not include any element of crime and “the news, articles and posts which have the characteristic of criticism and evaluation do not correspond to the crime of ‘aiding a terrorist organization.”
The Court of Cassation’s 16th Penal Chamber reached a decision on Sept. 12, 2019, complying with the demands in the letter of notification of its Prosecutor’s Office. Çetinkaya’s sentence of 6 years and 3 months in prison was reversed.
In the reasoned decision of 16th Penal Chamber, it was stated that the principle of “defendant benefits from the suspicion” should be applied.
In the decision, the expressions about Cumhuriyet Newspaper as “known as its oppositional identity” were used. It was also stated that freedom of thought and expression should also include the ideas whih are not approved by a part of the public.
In the decision, it was mentioned that for committing the crime of aiding an organization, there should be “an intention.” For detecting “an intention”, the existence of the organization and its members’ identites should also be known. There should be a concrete evidence for the crime of “aiding an organization intentionally and voluntarily.”
In the decision; it was mentioned that the fundamental condition of punishment is the detection of crime without any suspicion. Suspicious and ambigious allegations cannot be interpreted against the defendants for a decision of sentence.
It was emphasized in the decision that the court committees were mistaken about the assessment of evidences.
The retrial of all the defendants will start at the Istanbul 27th Heavy Penal Court.