The logo of the shuttered pro-Kurdish daily Özgürlükçü Demokrasi. An Istanbul court sentenced five former Özgürlükçü Demokrasi journalists for “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member” on May 9, 2024. (Photo: Mezopotamya News Agency)

Turkish court sentences 5 journalists from shuttered newspaper to prison

Istanbul, May 9, 2024 — After an Istanbul court on Thursday sentenced five journalists for “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member” in connection to their work at the shuttered pro-Kurdish daily Özgürlükçü Demokrasi (Liberal Democracy), the Committee to Protect Journalists called on Turkish authorities to not fight their appeals and end the judicial onslaught against the Kurdish media.

The court sentenced Mehmet Ali Çelebi, a former editor and columnist for the daily, to three years and nine months in prison. Former publisher İhsan Yaşar, former responsible news editor İshak Yasul, and former editors Hicran Ürün and Reyhan Hacıoğlu were sentenced to three years and 45 days each. The defendants will remain free pending appeal.

The court acquitted distributor Mizgin Fendik and separated the case of staffer Pınar Tarlak, which will be merged with other cases she has.

“Turkish authorities should not contest the appeals of journalists Mehmet Ali Çelebi, İhsan Yaşar, İshak Yasul, Hicran Ürün, and Reyhan Hacıoğlu as they have been on trial for their journalism for years,” said Özgür Öğret, CPJ’s Turkey representative. “The prolonged harassment trial is a good opportunity to put an end to the relentless judicial onslaught against the Kurdish media in Turkey.”

Authorities raided and seized Özgürlükçü Demokrasi and its printing house in March 2018 before shuttering the outlet alongside two others by a government decree in July of that year. The five defendants were arrested alongside other staff of the newspaper and printing house workers during or shortly after the raids in April 2018.

Istanbul prosecutors originally charged the defendants with running a “terrorist publication” and with being members of, and making propaganda for, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to court documents CPJ inspected. PKK has been fighting the Turkish forces since the 1980s and has been recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States.

The Istanbul court originally found four of the journalists guilty of aiding a terrorist organization on June 28, 2019, and sentenced Ürün, Hacıoğlu, Çelebi, and Yasul to more than three years in prison. Yasul was also found guilty of “propaganda” and given an extra 18 months and 22 days of prison time.

The court did not find Yaşar guilty in that verdict but fined him 500 Turkish liras (US$2,885 at the time) for owning an unlicensed gun. That verdict was overturned by an appeals court in March 2021.

CPJ emailed the chief prosecutor’s office in Istanbul for comment but did not receive a reply.

Turkey was the world’s 10th worst jailer of journalists, according to CPJ’s latest prison census, conducted on December 1.