Turkish judge adjourns trial of five journalists amid scuffles

Istanbul, Turkey, February 7, 2006—Scuffles erupted between riot police and Turkish nationalist lawyers at the start of the trial today of five journalists in a freedom of speech case given prominence by Turkey’s European Union application.

After more than two hours of courtroom chaos, the judge adjourned the hearing until April 11 to allow the prosecution time to study a barrage of defense objections to charges stemming from articles that criticized a ban on a university conference about the mass killing of Armenians during World War I, a powder keg issue in Turkey.

Journalists Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin, Erol Katircioglu, and Ismet Berkan of the daily Radikal, and Hasan Cemal of the daily Milliyet were charged in December under Article 288 of the penal code with attempting to influence the outcome of a trial through their writing. All except Berkan also face prosecution under Article 301 for publicly denigrating Turkish identity and the institutions of the Turkish state. If convicted, they could face prison terms of six months to 10 years.

Hundreds of riot police ringed the courthouse in the outlying district of Bagcilar to prevent nationalist demonstrators from entering. Several nationalist lawyers inside the courtroom began shouting as the trial opened and called for all foreigners and EU observers to be ejected. They ignored the judge’s repeated orders to keep quiet and scuffled with police who tried to remove them.

The defendants gave the court written and oral explanations of their articles, which took issue with Turkish court orders blocking a conference to discuss the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Armenians contend that the killings constitute genocide, a characterization that Turkey rejects.

“I used my right to criticize as a journalist,” Cemal, a widely read columnist, told the court.

After the adjournment, Cemal told CPJ that he expected he and his codefendants would eventually be acquitted, noting that Turkey had been making efforts to adopt European law as part of its EU membership bid. An Istanbul court dropped Article 301 charges in January against internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for remarks about the Armenian killings.

European Member of Parliament Joost Lagendijk of the Netherlands told reporters that if the five are convicted “it will have consequences for the EU accession process.” Lagendijk, who was monitoring the proceeding for the EU, had himself faced similar charges in Turkey for comments about the Turkish military. Turkish prosecutors dropped the case last week.

“Turkey is on the way to removing curbs on the media as it seeks to join the European Union, but cases like this undermine that progress,” Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said from New York. “We urge the court to dismiss all charges against these five journalists when it reconvenes in April.”

CPJ Senior Editor Robert Mahoney monitored the court proceedings in Istanbul. The charges, filed on December 2, 2005, stem from columns published in Radikal and Milliyet that strongly criticized Turkish court rulings banning an academic conference last year on the Armenian massacres. Court orders stopped the conference from taking place at two Istanbul universities, in May and again in September, but organizers held the conference on September 24, 2005, by moving it at the last minute to a third, Biglu University. Three of the five defendants teach at Biglu.