On justice as journalists, politicians are in jail

On justice as journalists, politicians are in jail

I received a letter two days ago, seemingly sent to many other colleagues by Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been in jail in the western province of Edirne for more than 10 months without having appeared before a judge. 

It is not clear when he is going to appear in court, since two separate courts so far refused to try him regarding the indictment prepared by prosecutors accusing him of helping making propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) through his speeches in and outside of the Turkish parliament.

In his letter, Demirtaş said his arrest (on Nov. 4, 2016) and captivity was against the 83rd article of the Turkish constitution, which suggests that members of parliament cannot be held responsible for what they say in parliament and the repetition of the same speech elsewhere. He was arrested due to an amendment on May 20, 2016, which lifted the immunities of MPs, who have had indictments against them sent to the Justice Ministry on activities up until then but did not cover events after that. 

“It was a grave mistake,” Demirtaş said. “Parliamentary immunities are lifted retrospectively, not for future activity. It is a weird situation where I have legal immunity and don’t have it at the same time,” he added. He said it was the reason why no court can try him and nine other MPs of the HDP. “We have been arrested upon the orders of politicians, not courts,” he claimed.

The constitutional amendment in May 2016, encouraged by President Tayyip Erdoğan and submitted by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), was supported not only by Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) but also Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Ironically, the first MP who was sentenced and put in jail, on June 14, from the CHP was Enis Berberoğlu, with a sentence of 25 years in prison. 

Berberoğlu was accused on espionage and “helping terrorism” charges because of providing - already published but later on restricted by a court - material to the prominent center-left newspaper Cumhuriyet. It was the jailing of Berberoğlu which triggered the 450-kilometer “justice march” by Kılıçdaroğlu from June 15 to July 9 from Ankara to Istanbul and later a “justice congress” between Aug. 26 and 29 where he claimed the lack of justice was the biggest problem in Turkey.

Following that, Erdoğan started to accuse Kılıçdaroğlu and the CHP of acting “in line with terrorists” and of “not being native and national.” The reference “terrorists” in Erdoğan’s speech was including both the PKK and the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher who is indicted of masterminding the July 15, 2016, military coup attempt in Turkey. 

On Sept. 8, Erdoğan particularly picked on one CHP deputy chairman, Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who claimed that an armed drone used effectively in the fight against the PKK might have hit civilians in an operation in the southeastern province of Hakkari, bordering both Iraq and Iran. Erdoğan said instead of being proud of natively-designed and produced - by an aerospace company owned by Erdoğan’s son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar - Kılıçdaroğlu was letting his deputy slander anti-terrorism efforts. Right after Erdoğan’s remarks, an Ankara prosecutor filed a lawsuit against Tanrıkulu on accusations he was helping terrorists. As Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said one of the wounded people in the drone attack admitted that he had met with a PKK terrorist, Tanrıkulu said prosecuting him was a violation of article 83 of the constitution about parliamentary immunities.

The HDP, being the third biggest group in the Turkish parliament, is already suffering court cases under accusations of helping terrorists. The CHP is not only the main opposition but the founding party of the Turkish Republic, with a staunch 25 percent voter support, and labeling the CHP terrorist might seem beneficial for the AK Parti in the short- run before elections in 2019 (first locals, then general, to be held with the presidential vote), but may trigger new fault lines in politics.

And it is not only the court cases against politicians which are prompting strong criticisms against Erdoğan from outside Turkey under the state of emergency, launched after the thwarted coup attempt.

The situation of jailed journalists and media employees is another painful problem especially when considered in relations with the European Union. Erdoğan is under attack because of the current situation of the independence of courts as well as media freedom and freedom of expression.

Today on Sept. 11, four Cumhuriyet journalists are going to appear in an Istanbul criminal court. Kadri Gürsel, also the head of the Turkish chapter of the International Press Institute (IPI), Murat Sabuncu and Akın Atalay have been under arrest for 316 days. Ahmet Şık has been imprisoned for 254 days, being sought life imprisonment for helping two different terrorist organizations - the Gülenist network and the PKK - at the same time. 

Senior columnists Şahin Alpay and Ali Bulaç, from the newspapers Zaman, Bugün and Taraf, known for adhering to Gülen and now shut for that reason, have already finished 410 days behind bars, along with Nazlı Ilıcak. Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Murat Aksoy have completed one year already. They were also writing for papers like Zaman, Bugün and Taraf. Journalists of different nationalities like Deniz Yücel, a German citizen, have further strained diplomatic relations between Turkey and Germany. According to the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), there are 160 journalists in prisons currently, this being the highest number in the world, yet the government says they are not imprisoned because of journalism but over terrorism and espionage.

Amid these developments in Turkey, a U.S. court has indicted and issued an arrest warrant against a former Turkish economy minister, Zafer Çağlayan, in relation with the Iran-origin Turkish citizen Reza Zarrab, who is currently in prison in the U.S. accused of breaking sanctions on Iran. Same applies to Süleyman Aslan, the former head of the Turkish state bank Halkbank. Çağlayan was accused of receiving bribes from Zarrab, and Aslan was announced as being arrested by the police with $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoeboxes in his bedroom during the Dec. 17-25, 2013, graft probes. The accusations against them in Turkey were dropped, and prosecutors and judges involved in those probes are either now on the run or imprisoned for receiving instructions from the illegal Gülenist network. 

Erdoğan, who has been criticizing the U.S. administration for harboring Gülen and his followers in the country who have been indicted for trying to overthrow the Turkish government through a military coup, slammed the latest ruling as an action taken against Turkey on Sept. 8.

Later on Sept. 9, Erdoğan had a telephone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump and the matter is expected to be discussed during a meeting between the two at the United Nations General Assembly later in September. Another issue within that framework is an arrest warrant issued against Erdoğan’s bodyguards for attacking protesters during a visit by Erdoğan in Washington D.C. in May.

“You may be a strong country, a big country” Erdoğan told U.S. authorities regarding the Çağlayan case on Sept. 8, “But it is important to be a state of justice.” A sentence with which I can fully agree.