Every three months for the past three years, renowned journalists and best-selling authors have been trooping into a courtroom in Istanbul’s ultra-modern palace of justice, defendants in a trial that they view – and regularly denounce – as a mockery of law.
Investigative journalists Ahmet Sik, just named the winner of the UNESCO World Press Freedom prize, and Nedim Sener, who received the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom award, are the best-known internationally of the 14 people on trial. They’re among 10 who’ve spent a year or more in pretrial detention.
The charges against the writers are odd and ill-defined: “aiding an armed terrorist organization” and “inciting hatred and hostility.” The primary evidence was digital, and – according to defendants, their lawyers and independent experts, including a U.S.-based expert in digital forensics – it was fabricated and clumsily planted.
But there’s no end in sight for the Odatv trial, named for the independent news portal that carried some of their writings. The Turkish Parliament has abolished the special counterterrorism court where the trial was heard, and according to defendant Muyesser Yildiz, an Odatv reporter in Ankara, Istanbul’s high criminal court has yet put it on its docket.
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The twist in the Odatv trial as the world marked World Press Freedom day on Saturday is that this isn’t another case of overreach by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful prime minister, whose moves to control the media and clamp down on civil liberties have drawn criticism at home and abroad. Instead, what the defendants have in common is that they wrote books or chapters criticizing the enormous behind-the-scenes role of Fethullah Gulen, an elderly moderate Islamic cleric who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains and is Erdogan’s bitter foe.
Odatv is a case study in a flawed judicial system that features encyclopedic indictments, omnibus trials, dubious evidence, a widespread practice of pretrial detention and endless proceedings. It’s but one of many such cases and thus a big challenge for Turkish democracy if it’s to move from a judicial system that can be manipulated by the powerful to one built on respect for the rule of law.
It’s also an example of what Erdogan charges has become a “parallel structure” in the state in which Gulen’s supporters dominate the judiciary and the police. Since December, Erdogan has been on the defensive over a major corruption scandal that he claims “Pennsylvania” – as he refers to Gulen – has instigated in a bid to topple him.
Erdogan called last week for the United States to expel Gulen or extradite him to Turkey, and news media reported that the cleric is under investigation on allegations of espionage and involvement in an “attempted coup.”
If what the two best-known defendants on trial say is to be believed, the system the Gulenists influenced is rotten.
Sener says he was charged and jailed after he wrote a book that alleged Gulenist policemen were behind the 2007 killing of another journalist, Hrant Dink. “The whole Turkish justice system became party to this injustice,” he said on receiving the journalism prize in November. “This is how Turkish justice works: Instead of bringing journalist-killers to trial, journalists are tried as terrorists.” He expects a 15-year prison term.
Sik, author of “The Imam’s Army,” which details the “organized infiltration” by Gulen supporters of the judicial establishment, said it would be hard to reform the system of justice because “most of the police force is known to be of the (Gulen) movement.”
“Which police will you use to conduct this operation? Which prosecutors will you assign to the case that will be independent of the movement?” he told a German radio station. “Which judges and court panels will you try the case with?”
Gulen’s followers tell a different story. They view the defendants in the Odatv trial as people who gave false testimony to the charges that Gulen headed a criminal network to overthrow the secular order. Gulen’s trial on those charges lasted nine years and concluded with an acquittal in 2008, after Erdogan became prime minister.
Those “who complain about the judicial process today … complain about it because they know how to do their stuff,” said Mustafa Yesil, the president of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, the main Gulenist institution in Istanbul. “They know how to fabricate evidence; they know how to put things as if they were true.”
Gulen’s supporters also point to a second court case as related directly to the Odatv trial: the mammoth five-year-long prosecution of top Turkish military officers, academics, journalists and others known as the Ergenekon trial, which dominated political discourse in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The defendants were accused of a complex conspiracy to overthrow the elected moderate Islamist government and replace it with a more secular one. The Gulen movement publicly supported the Ergenekon trial, which ended in August with the conviction of 242 defendants and the acquittal of 23.
Several Odatv defendants say Gulenists in the police, prosecutor’s office and judiciary who masterminded and directed the Ergenekon process then moved against them because they’d criticized the Ergenekon prosecution.
Citing ill health, Gulen declined to respond to written questions from McClatchy about why he hasn’t publicly denounced the Odatv trial, when it shared so many of the features of his own trial: a highly questionable trial procedure; apparently phony, planted evidence; no genuine witnesses; and a very slow pace. He also declined to say whether he thought the judges and prosecutors in the case should step aside given the allegations that they’re Gulenists.
The president of the Alliance for Shared Values, a Gulenist organization in the United States, rejected the idea that Gulenists were behind the Odatv trial. “Neither Hizmet (Gulen’s movement) nor Mr. Gulen have any connection whatsoever to these trials,” said Alp Aslandogan. “Hizmet supporters have categorically rejected prosecution or persecution of any person for things they write or say.”
Soner Yalcin, the proprietor of Odatv, was arrested in February 2011, along with other employees including Yildiz, an Odatv contributor from Ankara. Sik and Sener were arrested the following month.
Some were jailed for 18 months or more, but today the only defendant still in custody is Hanefi Avci, a former head of the national police’s organized crimes unit, who wrote a book that claims Gulen personally directed supporters who’d infiltrated police intelligence. Avci was convicted in a different case of aiding a terrorist group that he was investigating.
The defendants in the Odatv case met the first time in the courtroom where the trial got underway in November. Avci pleads with the three-judge panel at every session to disregard the central evidence, which consists of a set of electronic documents ostensibly containing instructions to Yalcin to order Avci and Sener to write books or articles. Avci claims that the documents were inserted into the computer’s hard drive by a virus that later destroyed itself, and outside experts have testified that the evidence was fabricated. But Avci’s objection is routinely rejected.
Other than the Gulenists, there are few who'll defend the Odatv proceedings either for substance or due process. After attending one trial session, the president of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations sounded livid.
“Journalism is on trial in Odatv, and it is really we citizens who are in custody, because they were thrown into prison for explaining to us the illegalities of (the Ergenekon investigations and trials), the power struggles among those in power, and the intractable foreign-policy problems Turkey is being dragged into,” said Dr. Metin Feyzioglu. He predicted the Turkish nation would reject the entire process as “unjust.”