Turkey Trials: “As an observer, the hardest thing is witnessing the lack of justice”

Silivri prison outside Istanbul (photo: CeeGee, SilivriPrison02, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Turkey Programme Officer Georgia Nash of London-based human rights campaign Article 19 has been present at a lot of trials against journalists in Turkey. In an interview with the ECPMF she talks about the lack of justice, sleepy soldiers and strong defendants.

Georgia Nash, you have been an observer at several of Turkey’s trials, the Altans and the Zaman newspaper trial where journalists are accused of supporting terrorism. Why does your organisaton feel that these trials require international scrutiny?

The most high-profile mass trials of journalists in relation to last years’ failed coup include the “Cumhuriyet” case, the Altans’s case, the “Zaman” case and the Murat Aksoy/ Atilla Tas case – in these cases the journalists are accused of membership of a terrorist organisation, aiding a terrorist organisation or attempting to overthrow the government. The “evidence” presented is for the most part, the news reports, opinion pieces or interviews of the defendants. Where other evidence is presented it is generalised and not targeted at the individual. It may be a cliché term, but the indictments are genuinely Kafkaesque.

In some cases, the charges are completely disconnected from the evidence. For example, in the case of the Altans and the Zaman journalists, the defendants are facing potentially very severe sentences of up to 30 years in jail on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through violence and force” – the same charges levied against the military officers who actually bombed the parliament on the night of the coup attempt in July 2016. But the evidence of their “violence and force” are their articles and statements and who they knew.

In the ‘Zaman’ case, the thoughts and ideas of the journalists are on trial. The indictment says that the journalists’ articles did not contain any “crime elements”, but overall they demonstrate a “stance” showing they were writing according to the editorial policy of ‘Zaman’ newspaper. The editorial policy of the paper was allegedly aligned with the interests of Fethullah Gülen. He is the leader of the religious movement which the Turkish government blames for the coup attempt and which the government designated as a terrorist organisation last year. The “stance” of the articles is therefore used as evidence of membership in a terrorist organisation.

In addition to these high-profile trials, there are a huge number of on-going trials on lesser charges which pre-date the coup attempt, and there are also trials taking place in other areas of Turkey, which draw few observers. For example – Nedim Turfent, a Kurdish journalist, is on trial in Hakkari, a far eastern province near the Iraqi border. We know from the small number of national observers who attended, that 12 out of 13 of the witnesses said in court that they were tortured in custody and forced to testify against Turfent. With severe human rights violations such as these being alleged, it is also important to follow those trials.

The Turkish government claims that the judiciary is independent. We can see that this is not true: the trials are visibly politically-motivated. One in every five judges has been dismissed or faces charges since last years’ coup. So the judiciary is under immense pressure. International scrutiny of the trials, including through attending the hearings, is crucial so that we can dismantle the Turkish government’s narrative version of an independent judiciary presiding over fair trials.

The latest hearings were held under tight security in Silivri prison. Please could you describe the circumstances and the atmosphere during the hearings.

Silivri prison is a modern prison complex, a couple of hours drive outside of Istanbul. The security protocols mean that you cannot enter with your phone or your laptop, making it impossible to do continual updates of the proceedings on social media. Journalists with a press card get access to a press room where they can use the computers – but as an international observer I was in the main courtroom.

The courtroom at Silivri is huge and technically impressive. There are two large screens on either side of the panel of judges showing defendants or lawyers when they speak. Multiple camera angles, zoom and excellent audio equipment mean that it is much easier to follow the proceedings at Silivri than at Cagalayan Courthouse, the Serious Crimes Court in Istanbul where a number of other trials of journalists are taking place.

A large number of soldiers fill the court room at Silivri prison. While initially intimidating, this soon wears off when you notice that they are just bored young men. A senior looking soldier patrolled the room poking those soldiers who had fallen asleep.

At all of the trials I have attended the atmosphere is heavy. The sadness and distress among family and friends is palpable. The ‘Cumhuriyet’ case gets a lot more public support than the others and the display of solidarity, noisy at times, improves the atmosphere at the hearings. In other cases, the seriousness of the charges, the politicisation of the justice process and the lack of public support engenders a sense of hopelessness, which can be tangibly felt in the courtroom.

It must have been difficult for you as an observer –  what was going through your mind as you took notes on the proceedings? How was it to do your job in a high security prison with no phones involved?

While Silivri is higher security, Caglayan Courthouse is more practically challenging as the court rooms are frequently too small to accommodate the observers. This leads to an unfortunate competition for entry between the observers, the press and the friends and relatives of the defendants in the mass trials. I have attended trials at Caglayan – for example, the trial of 21 journalists including Murat Aksoy and Atilla Tas, where I was unable to enter the courtroom at all. While the hearings are officially open to the public, significant barriers exist to observation, and some judges are stricter than others on the number of observers allowed entry, making the application somewhat arbitrary.

Remaining outside is frustrating, but more than that it is sad. At Murat Aksoy’s trial, I spent the whole day with his wife next to the barriers hoping to be allowed in. Even though she was his only relative there to support him, she hadn’t been able to access the court room – an opportunity for her to wave at him and for him to know she was there for him. The court reporters who regularly follow the trials also face problems accessing the courtrooms: standing outside and arguing with guards is a regular and stress-filled experience for them.

At the trials, you witness intimate expressions of love between family and defendants, who put on an admirably brave face but are also visibly devastated by the circumstances. When the defendants turn and wave at their families and friends – it’s a moment filled with smiling and waving, which then sometimes gives way to tears when the defendant is not looking or if the judge announces the journalists’ requests for release from pre-trial detention has been denied.

The hearings are also filled with banal and dystopian moments. One example comes to mind from the Altans’ second hearing. Mehmet Altan is accused of aiding a terrorist organisation and evidence against him includes a number of one dollar bills found in his wallet. The prosecutor alleges that keeping F-series one dollar bills (referring to the reference number on the bill) is evidence of membership of the Gülen movement. The judge was presented with the one dollar bills and examined each one carefully, calling out their serial number with an attention to detail which somehow highlighted the absurdity of the evidence.

There are also poignant, deeply sad and sometimes even funny moments. One defendant in the ‘Zaman’ case, journalist Mumtazer Turkoner, when talking about how important his mother is to him, related to a childhood anecdote in which he came home to the sound of his father screaming. Horrified at what might be happening inside, he ran into the house to encounter his father standing on the kitchen table and his mother chasing a mouse with a broom. At this point everyone in the prison courtroom laughed – including the young soldiers. Turkoner then said that his mother had passed away while he was in pre-trial detention, turning one of the lightest moments in the hearing into another reminder of the depth and extent of the pain and suffering this crackdown has caused.

As an observer, the hardest thing is witnessing the lack of justice and seeing even for just a short time the suffering of the defendants and their family and friends. Knowing how significant these trials are for the rule of law in Turkey – and that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the suffering – weighs down on all the observers, whether Turkish or international.

And what about the defendants – how did they react to their day in court and the chance to finally face their accusers after many months in jail?

Many of the defendants take the opportunity to vindicate themselves or criticise the trial itself through long defence statements.

In the ‘Zaman’ case, with the journalists in particular, it was striking that the defence statements focused on their innermost thoughts, feelings and their ideological perspective – it’s oddly personal in a criminal trial. They have no choice but to focus on these things – which should be of no relevance to a criminal court –  because they are being tried for their “stance” or “perspective” rather than specific crimes that they can defend themselves against.

What sort of shape are they in – is the detention taking its toll?  

Some of the defendants are elderly – both Sahin Alpay and Nazli Ilicak are 73 years old and their lawyers have requested their release on grounds of their age. Others also face severe health issues: ‘Zaman’ journalist Yuksel Durgut appeared in court wearing a back brace as he had undergone open heart surgery while in detention. When recounting the experience in the court he said that there were delays in the prison authorities informing his family, that his family was unable to get permission to visit him, that he was discharged from hospital and returned to jail after one week, when he still required significant care. He said that he went three days without his dressings being changed and that he could not lift his arms to feed himself.

What was the reaction of their relatives and supporters – were they allowed to demonstrate their love and solidarity?

The long period of pre-trial detention is undoubtedly taking its toll on all of the defendants. They often put on a brave face for their family, supporters and friends, turning to smile and wave at them, and sometimes wink. The families are not allowed to approach the defendants but they wave and blow kisses from the gallery. Seeing the defendants in good spirits provides some solace for their family, while the waves from family and friends undoubtedly provide them with a source of strength and resolve.

One of the hearings you observed was the one involving the Altan brothers and ARTICLE 19 has commissioned an expert legal opinion on the charges against them. What is the main thrust of this argument?

The main conclusion of our expert opinion is that the trial is politically-motivated. The charges in the case are not linked with the evidence: there is no possible causal link between the television interviews and articles of the defendants with the coup attempt itself. While the charges are ”attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and the government through violence and force”, the prosecutor has not even attempted to explain how the words spoken by the defendants could amount to violence or force.

The expert opinion outlines international law on the right to freedom of expression as it applies to the case. It argues that the laws used to prosecute these journalists are vague and therefore vulnerable to abuse. The opinion refers to the Johannesburg Principles, which are an authoritative interpretation of legitimate restrictions on the right to freedom of expression when national security is threatened. According to these principles, for a restriction on expression to be justified in terms of national security it must be proven to be intended to incite imminent violence. It must also be likely to incite such violence and there must be a direct connection between the speech and the likelihood of violence.

In this case, and in others we have observed, the trials are a massive breach of international human rights standards and with potentially very long prison sentences, they represent grave miscarriages of justice.

In the case of the ‘Zaman’ newspaper trial, 31 people are accused. So it should in theory be a long process, with each individual examined separately. Yet the hearing closed after only two days. Is this what Article 19 means when you talk about “show trials“?

At the opening hearing of a trial in Turkey, the defendants are able to deliver their defence statements and the lawyers present a legal defence. After each defence statement, the defence lawyers are asked if they wish to add anything or ask any questions. While lawyers are able to ask questions, the defendants are not cross examined at the opening hearing. Presentation of evidence and hearing of witnesses will take place in later hearings.

The opening hearing of the ‘Zaman’ newspaper case actually lasted two days, I was there for the first day, and heard 21 defence statements in a hearing that went on until after 10pm. There is no limit on the length of the statements: some were quite long and took a couple of hours, others just a few minutes. The judge did not prevent defendants from finishing their statements, but was in a rush to complete the opening hearing in two days, stating that the courtroom would not be available for a third day.

What we mean by ‘show trials’ is that the judge appears to be following procedures, but indictments with manifestly unfounded charges and no credible evidence are presented at court and are not immediately dismissed, leaving observers with the impression that the trials are merely for show. This is clear in a number of cases. For example, at the end of the week-long opening hearing of the Altans’ trial the indictment was effectively torn to shreds by the defendants, their lawyers and our expert opinion. But not only did the judge rule to keep the defendants in pre-trial detention, he denied their request for more time with their lawyers. At the moment, they are only allowed one hour a week with their lawyers. Despite the obvious flaws in the cases, the trials continue and journalists remain behind bars for extended periods of time.

What is your prediction for how these trials will end, and how can the media freedom community of Europe affect the outcome?

While we have used the term ‘show trials’, we sincerely hope that the Turkish judiciary will prove us wrong in the coming hearings and issue independent judgements based on the rule of law.

Solidarity is important. Turkish civil society expects and appreciates support from the media freedom community of Europe. It may also have an effect on the outcome of the trials. At the very least, the Turkish courts know that they are being watched and that these human rights violations will not go unnoticed. The international media freedom community must keep up the pressure in support of journalists in Turkey, until all the journalists are released and the charges are dropped.

The article was republished from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) with permission.