Turkey sentences journalists, draws criticism ahead of summit

German newspapers publish a photo provided by Turkish lawyer Veysel Ok showing German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel (L) hugging his wife Dilek Mayaturk Yücel (R) after he was released from Silivri Prison in Istanbul, picture taken in Berlin, Germany, 17 February 2018. [Alexander Becher/ EPA]

Turkey’s sentencing of five journalists to life for involvement in a failed 2016 coup shows that the country’s judiciary cannot make independent decisions, the president of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) said on Monday (19 February) and urged the Council of Europe to take action.

Altogether six people were sentenced, including five members of the press. One journalist was released on bail but Otmar Lahodynsky, AEJ president, said that was hardly reassuring.

“The release on bail of Deniz Yücel, Turkey correspondent for the German daily Die Welt, after being held for a year without charge in a high-security prison, cannot be taken as evidence of a freely-functioning Turkish judiciary,” Lahodynsky said adding that Yücel, now in Germany, still faces the threat of up to 18 years in jail for “encouraging terrorism”.

Mehmet Altan, an economics professor and journalist, and his brother Ahmet, also a journalist, were accused of giving coded messages on a television talk show a day before the abortive military putsch. Nazli Ilicak, another well-known journalist, was also among the sentenced.

All six have denied the charges of “seeking to overthrow the constitutional order by force”.

The verdict drew fierce criticism from human rights groups and international bodies, including from the UN and OSCE experts on media freedom, who called on Turkey to reverse the decision.

AEJ said there were more than 150 Turkish journalists still in prison, most still waiting for the charge against them. Media lawyers report that in some indictments entire passages from other cases are identical: the “copy and paste” method apparently saves time.

“It is high time that the Council of Europe in Strasbourg – of which Turkey is a member – takes action,” Lahodynsky said.

So far, the Court of Human Rights has accepted only a small number of complaints from Turkish journalists, often pointing out that nothing can be done until the appeal has been heard in the Turkish courts.

“But as is becoming evident, the Turkish judiciary is no longer either free or impartial,” he added.

MEPs call on Turkey to lift state of emergency, stop civil society crackdown

The European parliament yesterday (8 February) called on Turkey to scrap the emergency powers which members said were being used to stifle “legitimate and peaceful opposition” and a free press.

The EU has recently invited Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan to a special summit in Varna, Bulgaria.

EU diplomats are hopeful that Turkey now seeks better relations with the EU. But that will not be possible as long as journalists and academics are sentenced to life imprisonment on the flimsiest of charges,” Lahodynsky said.

A lawyer for the Altan brothers told Reuters they would appeal the verdict.

This is a trial that wiped out freedom of thought,” the lawyer, Ergin Cinmen, told Reuters. “This verdict will be definitely reversed. Turkey cannot go on with this verdict.”

Western criticism of Turkey has mounted since Erdoğan tightened his grip on power following the 2016 coup and an ensuing security crackdown saw 5,000 people arrested and 150,000 fired or suspended from their jobs.

Erdoğan will meet European Council chief Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, in Varna on 26 March. Lifting the visa requirement for Turkish nationals is expected to feature among the issues discussed.

EU will not lift visas unless Turkey eases terrorism laws

The European Union told Turkey today (16 February) it would not ease travel requirements for its citizens unless Ankara softens counter-terrorism laws that the bloc says are excessive.