Murat Sabuncu started his journalism career in the Milliyet Newspaper’s economy section. He worked for the Milliyet Newspaper for 14 years before he served as an editor-in-chief for the magazines, Temo and Fortune Türkiye. He became the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper in 2016. After the change in the management in October 2018, he quitted his job at the Cumhuriyet Newspaper. He continued to write for t24.com.tr news website while being prosecuted in the Cumhuriyet trial. During the prosecution, he was kept in prison for 16 months. The court sentenced him to 7 years and 6 months of prison. The verdict has been appealed. The Court of Cassation reversed the decision about Murat Sabuncu along with all the other defendants of Cumhuriyet Newspaper. The retrial of all the defendants will start at the Istanbul 27th Heavy Penal Court.
Then the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper, Murat Sabuncu was arrested upon the order of the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office by the Anti-Terror Branch of Istanbul Police on Oct. 31, 2016. The reasoning for the arrest was “committing a crime on behalf of the terrorist organizations FETÖ/PDY [Fethullahist Terrorist Organization - The followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist living in self-imposed exile in the US that is accused of orchestrating a 15th of July coup attempt. The Turkish government declared FETÖ as a terrorist organization and it was approved by Turkish courts in 2016], and the PKK/KCK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish group] knowingly and willingly, although he does not belong to the structure of that organization” (TPC 220/7).
Murat Sabuncu was interrogated by the investigation’s prosecutor Murat İnam at the Anti-Terror Branch of the Istanbul Police Headquarters on Nov. 4, 2016. Then he was sent to the court with the request for detention. Sabuncu testified to the İstanbul 9th Criminal Court of Peace.
In his defense, Sabuncu said, “The employees of our newspaper always act lawfully. We are subject to the Press Law. The newspaper was always obvious about its stance against FETÖ, notably Hikmet Çetinkaya. When the chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation summoned me to his office, he said to me, ‘Son, now you are the editor-in-chief. You will publish strictly to this line.’ How does the prosecutor accuse us regarding 4 or 5 headlines? Yet this prosecutor himself is prosecuted for affiliation with FETÖ/PDY. I refuse all of the accusations.”
On Nov. 5, 2016, at the end of the interrogation, Judge Mustafa Çakar ruled to detain Murat Sabuncu for “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly, although he does not belong to the structure of that organization.” The court presented “strong criminal suspicion, the risk of absconding and tampering with evidence and oppressing the witnesses” as the reasoning of its verdict. Sabuncu was then sent to Silivri Prison.
On Nov. 2, 2016, it was revealed the investigation’s prosecutor, Murat İnam, was a defendant in a trial that was continuing in the Court of Cassation’s 16th Penal Chamber. İnam was accused of 10 charges, including “attempting to abolish the government.” Despite this fact, İnam continued to work on the Cumhuriyet investigation until April 3, 2017.
In the indictment, İnam’s signature wasn’t included, he was assigned to the investigation bureau. The ones who signed the indictment were Mehmet Akif Ekinci, the deputy of the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor, and Yasemin Baba, a junior prosecutor with the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Mehmet Akif Ekinci, the deputy of the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor, and Yasemin Baba, a junior prosecutor with the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, issued the Cumhuriyet indictment on April 3, 2017. The case against 19 people, including Kadri Gürsel, was opened.
The indictment was published by Nazif Karaman, a reporter for the pro-government Sabah newspaper, before it was delivered to the defendants. The main accusation in the indictment was the editorial policy change, which prosecutors believe was helping FETÖ/PDY, the DHKP-C [Revolutionary People’s Salvation Party-Front, a far left organization] and the PKK/KCK.
In the indictment, this accusation wasn’t directed by the prosecutors. The prosecutor’s office directed this accusation through the “communication expert” Ünal Aydemir and witnesses. The prosecutor’s office witnesses were Cem Küçük, Hüseyin Gülerce, Latif Erdoğan, Alev Coşkun, Rıza Zelyut, Mehmet Faraç, Ceyhan Mumcu, Şükran Soner, Nail İnal, Talat Atila, İbrahim Yıldız, Ali Açar, İnan Kıraç, Mustafa Pamukoğlu, Nevzat Tüfekçioğlu, and Namık Kemal Boya.
The İstanbul 27th High Criminal Court accepted the indictment on April 18, 2017. In the indictment, it was recommended that Sabuncu to be charged for “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly, although he does not belong to the structure of that organization.”
In the indictment, Sabuncu was accused of having a communication log with 18 people who are ByLock [ByLock is a communication application regarded as evidence of FETÖ membership by the Turkish courts] users and have also been subjected to FETÖ investigation. Among these numbers, there were phone numbers of the Cihan News Agency and Bugün TV.
In the “conclusion and evaluation” chapter of the indictment, it was claimed that, because of Sabuncu’s position as editor-in-chief since Sept. 1, 2016, he was responsible for the manipulative reports published in this period of time and the selection and narrative style of the reports. In the indictment, 12 of Sabuncu’s Twitter posts were also presented as a “crime” and it was claimed that, “through these posts, he was defaming the operations against the Zaman newspaper, opposed the operation against Bank Asya, trying to present the FETÖ leader as sympathetic, [and] supporting the Özgür Gündem newspaper, which was the propagandist tool of the terrorist organization PKK/PYD.”
Some of the employees of the Cumhuriyet newspaper were also presented as witnesses in the indictment.
The first hearing of the trial was held on “Press Day” on July 14, 2017, in the İstanbul 27th High Criminal Court. The first hearing lasted for five days. Sabuncu, then imprisoned, defended himself on July 25, 2017.
Noting that July 24th was marked as the anniversary of the lifting of censorship, Sabuncu defended himself in the following terms:
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t celebrate this day, just like the past few years, because there are 150 journalists in prison. As the journalists whose prosecution started on that day, here, we are forced to defend journalism, headlines, and reports. July 24th used to be celebrated as the day the censorship was lifted, until this day. But from now on, when the Cumhuriyet employees are sooner or later acquitted, today will be celebrated as the anniversary of the lifting of self-censorship. Because the Cumhuriyet trial is an intimidation case against journalists. Through this trial, they sent journalists a message that if you write a report, then one prosecutor would slander you and then you would end up in prison. The price of independent journalism in Turkey is to be imprisoned.”
Regarding the prosecutor of the investigation, the expert and the witnesses, Sabuncu spoke as follows:
“The prosecutor of this trial, the person who detained us and conducted the investigation, is a person who is undergoing prosecution and is charged with FETO membership, and facing one aggravated life sentence, a life sentence and 15 years of prison. Can you get your head around it? This person who has been prosecuted for FETÖ membership can slander the Cumhuriyet newspaper for ‘aiding the organization although not being a member of it.’ This person is on trial with an aggravated life sentence sought and he is released pending trial. The witnesses the prosecution has found consist of people who have been aligned with FETO have been foot soldiers at its command and who were among the founders of Zaman newspaper and the Journalists and Writers Foundation. Two of them are Hüseyin Gülerce and Latif Erdoğan. The expert examined our headlines and coverage over four years. It means 1,400 headlines, 14-15,000 reports. The expert who has insinuated, by means of cherry picking reports from among some 1,500 headlines and 14-15,000 reports, that we aided the organization, is an engineer. Possibly 28 years old. He has great affection for the word “virtually.” He has used the word “virtually” throughout the report. In page 9 of the indictment, the prosecutor quoted the expert, who said, ‘the Cumhuriyet newspaper has been virtually confiscated by the armed terrorist organization since 2013.’ The next sentence continued as follows: ‘In this period of the newspaper, the defendant was virtually the supporter of the terrorist organizations FETÖ, the PKK, and the DHKP-C.’”
Noting that he has been a journalist for 28 years, Sabuncu criticized some of the Cumhuriyet employees who testified as witnesses. “The journalists used as witnesses of the incidents, witnesses of history. Now, journalists are testifying in the trials in which their friends, colleagues are prosecuted. Surely, this will also mark its place in history,” Sabuncu said.
Sabuncu noted that he was appointed to the position of editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper on Sept. 1, 2016, and most of the headlines that were mentioned in the indictment were published before his legal liability. “However,” Sabuncu continued, “Even though I don’t have legal liability for the publishings before this date, I happily undertake the honorable mission of the newspaper’s moral and political responsibility.”
While “defending” the reports and headline of the Cumhuriyet newspaper titled “Yurtta savaş, dünyada savaş” (“War in home, war in the world”), “Sokaktaki tehlike” (“The danger in the streets”, “YAŞ’ta paralel tasfiyesi” (“Parallel purge in the Supreme Military Council”), “Cadı avı başladı” ( “The witch hunt began”) and “Eksik demokrasi” (“Incomplete democracy”), Sabuncu stressed they have always advocated for democracy and they will always do so.
Sabuncu finished his defense with the following:
“I should say that this newspaper, for which I am honored to be editor-in-chief, the legendary name İlhan Selçuk was tortured in Ziver Bey Mansion just after the 1971 coup d’etat. The fugitive prosecutor Zekeriya Öz tried to arrest 80-years-old İlhan Selçuk under the charge of Ergenekon. This newspaper’s writers, Ali Sirmen, Ataol Behramoğlu, and Erdal Atabek was imprisoned after the 1980 coup d’etat. This newspaper’s writers Uğur Mumcu, Bahriye Üçok, Ahmet Taner Kışlalı were murdered. Ours is such a newspaper. Now, regarding your point of view, I would like to say one last sentence. Whatever claims will be made against me as the Cumhuriyet newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, or employee or just a journalist, whatever price they wanted us to pay, we will not leave the path of İlhan Selçuk, Uğur Mumcu, Hrant Dink, Musa Anter or Metin Göktepe.”
The court ruled for the release of Murat Sabuncu on March 9, 2018. During the seventh hearing of the trial, Prosecutor Hacı Hasan Bölükbaşı explained his opinion regarding the accusations. In his opinion, Bölükbaşı stated that, “It was understood that the whole publishing activity subjected to the prosecution,” and recommendation for Sabuncu to be convicted for “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly, although he does not belong to the structure of that organization.”
The final hearing of the trial was held in the courtroom that was built in front of Silivri Prison on April 24-25, 2018.
Noting the defendants were in love with their profession, Murat Sabuncu spoke as follows:
“Whatever the price will be, we have to defend our love. But the prices that we pay personally are just details for the public’s right to be informed by our reporting. The Cumhuriyet newspaper, that I am proud to be a part of, has always spoken the unspoken, showed the unseen. It stood by the people, not the power. Because it did not leave the truth throughout its history, it was attacked and slandered in the times when the democracy was weak. Its employees were imprisoned or were the targets of bullets. We are part of this difficult but honorable history. We are at the end of the trial where all of the slanders were refuted. We walked in this room with our heads held high, and we’ll leave this room with our heads held high. We will never leave the path of Abdi İpekçi, Uğur Mumcu, İlhan Selçuk, Hrant Dink, Musa Anter or Metin Göktepe. Despite the wrongdoings against them, their heritage as love for our people has always been our light. I will continue to love my country and practice true and brave journalism.”
In his last words, Murat Sabuncu spoke as follows:
“Freedom is a beautiful thing. When you’ve lost it once, you understand it even better. My profession is a profession in which you have to tell the truth no matter what the conditions are. We always spoke the truth in the Cumhuriyet newspaper. My stance and that of my friends is that in life, you must always tell the truth. We spoke the truth throughout this prosecution. In a few minutes, you will make a decision about our freedom. We have said the same thing since day one. Journalism is not a crime. We only practiced journalism and will continue our practice under any condition.”
The court reached a verdict on April 25, 2018. The court convicted Sabuncu for “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly, although he does not belong to the structure of that organization” and sentenced him 7 years and 6 months of prison.
In the reasoning of the verdict, it was claimed that Sabuncu was reflecting the terrorist organization’s propaganda and perception management to the public and he was sentenced because of the consistency with these kinds of reports.
The İstanbul Regional Court of Justice’s 3rd Panel Chamber approved the verdict on Feb. 18, 2019. According to the Law of Criminal Procedure, the defendants who were sentenced more than five years can appeal the verdict to the Court of Cassation. The attorneys of the journalists appealed the verdict to the Court of Cassation’s 16th Penal Chamber on Feb. 26, 2019.
Mücahit Erdoğan and Turan Kuloğlu, the chief 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 removal of the verdict about Sabuncu.
In the notification, it was stated that the subject matters of the charges such as tweets, HTS records and attendance to Abant meetings do not correspond to a crime committed by Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay and Sabuncu.
It was mentioned in the notification that Orhan Erinç, Akın Atalay and Sabuncu were the managers of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper. Nevertheless, it was stated that Sabuncu and the other defendants could not be accused because of the articles published by the newspaper as there was no information, document or evidence for it and thus they can not be held responsible for the articles.
The Court of Cassation
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.
In the reasoned decision of the 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 which 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.
The Application to the Constitutional Court and the ECHR
Ten defendants who were imprisoned during the prosecution, including Murat Sabuncu have applied to the Constitutional Court on Dec. 6, 2016. The concerned branch of the court sent Sabuncu’s file to the General Assembly of the Court in July 2018.
The General Assembly of the Court discussed the file on May 2, 2019, and reached a verdict that Sabuncu’s rights weren’t violated.
The Constitutional Court rejected Sabuncu’s appeal on May 2, 2019 by a majority vote.
In the decision of the Constitutional Court, the reasoning took attention regarding the violation of Sabuncu’s freedom of expression and press.
It was stated that the evidences are convincing to get suspicious about Sabuncu’s committing a crime. It was also mentioned that the justificaiton of his detention is proper and scaled. It was emphasized that regarding Sabuncu’s investigation and detention in the scope of violation of his freedom of expression and press is inadmissable.
Zühtü Arslan, the president of the Constitutional Court and Ergin Yıldırım, the vice president opposed to this decision with the other 4 members.
Zühtü Arslan, the president of the Constitutional Court stated that the publications and news which are subject to the allegations were published before Sabuncu’s chief editorship. Arslan also emphasized that how Sabuncu is held responsible for the articles and news published in the newspaper is not explained.
Arslan also stated that Sabuncu’s critical social media posts about the operation against the Zaman Newspaper cannot be regarded as a crime. Arslan added: “These posts were generally evaluations on the pressure to journalists, and the sacking of them by the instructions of political actors.” Arslan said there is no justification about these posts’ being elements of crime.
In his opposition letter, Arslan said:
“The defendant was detained due to the articles and news published by the newspaper in various times as he was the chief editor of it. The measure of detention about him do not meet the conditions of lawfullness and the detention is quite heavy regarding the freedom of expression and press. Seeing it as a necessary and scaled intervention cannot be accepted in a democratic society.”
Sabuncu applied to the European Court of Human Rights on Nov. 9, 2016.
Cumhuriyet Newspaper Trial (Indictment)
Cumhuriyet Newspaper Trial (Reasoned Judgement)
Cumhuriyet Newspaper Trial (The Constitutional Court's Judgement)
Cumhuriyet Newspaper Trial (Notification of the Prosecutor's Office (CoC))
Cumhuriyet Newspaper Trial (The Court of Cassation's Judgement)
Cumhuriyet Newspaper Trial (The Court of Appeal's Judgement)