PEN welcomes the release of Gürsel and Karataş despite ‘dark week’ for the freedom of expression in Turkey

29 September 2017 – ‘The past week has been another dark one for the right to free speech in Turkey, which continues to imprison hundreds of journalists and writers. While we welcome the release from pre-trial detention of Kadri Gürsel and Yusuf Karataş, we reiterate our call on the Turkish authorities to end its crackdown on the freedom of expression, to restore the freedom of the press and to immediately and unconditionally release all those held for peacefully expressing their views’, said Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International.

On Monday 25 September, Cumhuriyet columnist and International Press Institute (IPI) Turkey representative Kadri Gürsel was released after having spent more than 11 months in pre-trial detention. However, four of his colleagues – namely, chief executive Akın Atalay, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, investigative journalist Ahmet Şık and accountant Emre İper – remain behind bars, in a case that saw 14 people serve pre-trial detention. The Cumhuriyet employees are charged with aiding terrorist organisations (specifically, the Gülen Movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and far-left group DHKP/C) without being a member and risk prison sentences between 7.5 and 43 years if convicted. The next hearing in the Cumhuriyet case is scheduled for 31 October. PEN International, which observed the hearing together with PEN Belgium, Norsk PEN, Swiss-Italian and Retho-romansh PEN and PEN Suisse Romande, reiterates its call for the release of Akın Atalay, Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık and Emre İper.

On Friday 22 September, the Diyarbakır 9th High Criminal Court ordered the release of Yusuf Karataş, a columnist for the Evrensel daily. He had been in pre-trial detention since 27 July 2017, in relation to an investigation into the Democratic People’s Congress (DTK), a gathering held by Kurdish non-governmental organisations that advocates for increased Kurdish autonomy in Turkey’s Southeast region. Karataş upon his release said that ‘whether we are inside or outside, we will continue to speak the truth’. Lawyer Tugay Bek, who is part of Karataş’s legal team, said the charges against his client relate to activities between 2009 and 2013, a period in which DTK operated freely in line with agreements that were part of the peace negotiations that were on-going at the time. PEN International considers the charges brought against Karataş to be politically motivated and calls on the Turkish authorities to halt the prosecution of Karataş and the harassment of Evrensel, one of the few remaining oppositional news outlets in the country.

Tuesday 19 September saw another hearing in the case of the Altan brothers and 15 others, who stand accused of membership of a terrorist organisation and attempting to overthrow the government; the charges appear to accuse them of making up the ‘media wing’ of the Gülen Movement. Ahmet Altan said in his defence that ‘states are distinguished from armed gangs by the existence of judges’ and later added ‘show me one piece of evidence, I will give up my right to appeal and will agree to spend the rest of my life quietly in a prison cell’. Nazlı Ilıcak, another defendant in the case who worked for the Bugün daily as a columnist, said in her defence that ‘we journalists cannot be judged based on our articles … Which sentence is it that the prosecutor is claiming to have “evoked the coup”? He is not indicating any specific sentence. He is speaking in general terms. When did I praise the coup?’ Following the hearing, the court decided to continue the pre-trial detention of all 17 accused. The next hearing will be on 13 November. PEN International considers the case politically motivated, barring the production of any credible evidence, and repeats its call on the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the accused from pre-trial detention.

Today, 170 writers and journalists remain in Turkey’s prisons. Since last year’s attempted coup and the subsequently imposed state of emergency, 150 media outlets have been close down through statutory decree, including 64 newspapers and 28 publishing houses. The state of emergency and counter-terrorism legislation are being unduly used to severely restrict human rights, stifle criticism and limit the expression and dissemination of diverse views and opinions.