BHRC raises concern for fair trial rights in Turkey after latest trial observation

BHRC has published its interim trial observation report on the Zaman  trial, in which 10 journalists and one lawyer are being tried on terrorism charges in Turkey. Verdicts are due for all 11 defendants this week. Vice Chair Schona Jolly QC observed two tranches of the trial in Istanbul in May and June, 2018. Although this is necessarily an interim report, it raises serious concerns over violations of international law, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press, as well as fair trial rights in Turkey.

The Turkish daily newspaper Zaman was previously the most widely distributed newspaper in Turkey and was viewed as being favourable to Fetullah Gülen, considered by the Turkish state to be the leader of an organisation known as FETÖ/PDY (“Gülenist Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure”) whom it holds responsible for the violent attempted coup on 15 July 2016. Zaman was closed down by the national authorities soon after the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016, following the declaration of a national state of emergency, and many of its staff, including 10 journalists and their lawyer were arrested.

All but one of the Defendants were journalists who wrote for Zaman, many of whom are also academics. One defendant, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, is an experienced human rights and constitutional lawyer who represented Zaman before Turkey’s Constitutional Court and has appeared in cases against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights.  Four of the 11 defendants remain in pre-trial detention at Silivri prison, where they have been held for almost two years.

In its report, BHRC determines that the charges and allegations, alongside the manner in which the attendant evidence has been presented and pursued at trial, give rise to a serious inference that there is no prima facie case against these defendants. BHRC observes that the paucity of the Prosecutor’s evidence gives rise to the potential conclusion that such charges are manifestly ill-founded, that they have been improperly brought and pursued by the Prosecutor’s office, and that Defendants so charged have been arbitrarily and unlawfully deprived of their liberty. Placing this in the context of the very tight and broad clampdown on civil society, journalists, lawyers, academics and judges that has taken place since the coup attempt, BHRC considers that it is plausible that these charges are politically motivated, and that they represent a grave incursion into freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Turkey.

The report urges the Turkish authorities to consider both whether the continued prosecutions of these defendants, and the continued detention of four of them, are in the public interest and should be pursued. Further, BHRC urges the authorities, and in particular the Court, to honour their constitutional and international commitments to the rule of law and fundamental human rights, including by way of commitment to an independent and impartial judiciary and to the protection and preservation of freedom of expression.

BHRC Vice Chair Schona Jolly QC said:

“Whilst this is an interim trial report, and we have not yet had verdicts, very serious human rights failings appear to have been raised by what we have seen so far, including for those defendants who remain in detention. Despite the seriousness of the charges, and the aggravated life sentences sought by the Prosecutor for some of the Defendants, the evidence which has been relied upon to bring and pursue these charges appears farcical and fundamentally ill-considered. It does not come close to the standard required by international law, or indeed Turkey’s domestic law, which raises the question as to why these charges are being pursued at all.

This appears to be a situation in which journalists are being tried for employing everyday tools of their trade, such as common words or rhetorical phrases which, without more and without taking into account the context of the whole piece or the historical and political context in which their articles were written, do not begin to make out the elements of the serious terrorism crimes with which they are charged. Journalism itself does not constitute a crime.

It is also deeply concerning for the rule of law in Turkey that Zaman’s lawyer, Orhan Cengiz, who was listed on the indictment without any allegations against him initially, appears to have been targeted by virtue of being identified with his client.”

You can read the full report here.

A Turkish translation of the Executive Summary (here) and Press Release (here) are provided by Article 19.