Ali Ünal, a columnist and lead writer for the shuttered Turkish daily Zaman, was arrested shortly after the failed coup of 2016 and later found guilty of “founding and leading an armed terrorist organization.” In late 2018, he was sentenced to 19 years and six months in prison.
Police detained Ünal at his house in the western province of Uşak on August 14, 2016, as part of a sweeping purge of suspected followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, according to press reports. The government accuses Gülen of maintaining a terrorist organization and "parallel state structure" (or FETÖ/PDY, as the government calls it) within Turkey that it blames for orchestrating a failed military coup on July 15, 2016.
Authorities transferred Ünal to a detention facility in Istanbul on August 15, CNN Turk reported, and a court in Istanbul arraigned the journalist the following day on accusations of "being a member of an armed terrorist organization," "aiding a [terrorist] organization," and "making propaganda for a [terrorist] organization," according to press reports.
A court in March 2016 ordered the government to appoint trustees to manage Feza Media Group, which formerly published Zaman, saying the company had links to FETÖ/PDY. The government then used emergency powers it assumed after the coup attempt to order the newspaper closed by decree. Police arrested dozens of former Zaman journalists on terrorism charges, citing their former employment at the newspaper as evidence.
In July 2017, the state-run Anatolia News Agency reported that prosecutors presented a 228-page indictment against Ünal to the 2nd Uşak Court of Serious Crimes. The indictment did not specify the exact charges but said that authorities recognized Ünal as a leader of FETÖ. The journalist was facing two life sentences without the possibility of parole, plus a further 29.5 years imprisonment if convicted.
Anatolia reported that the indictment described Ünal as head writer for Zaman and claimed he was “managing the media operations of FETÖ” to manipulate the public.
The indictment claimed that Ünal was close to and in direct contact with Gülen; had traveled abroad 46 times and met with Gülen on most trips; and translated some of Gülen’s books, Anatolia reported. The indictment did not specify the time frame for the alleged travel and meetings. The indictment added that Ünal had an app called Kakoa Talk, which is similar to Bylock, the encrypted communication app that authorities claim is evidence of FETÖ membership. Ünal also had an account at Bank Asya, which the government also claims is evidence of FETÖ membership.
The first hearing of the trial was held on January 4, 2018, Anatolia Agency reported. In his court testimony, Ünal said the only connection he had with the Fethullah Gülen community was as a columnist and translator. He said he had an account at Bank Asya because that was how he was paid for his work at Zaman. Ünal denied installing the Kakoa Talk program on his phone, denied all the charges against him and said he was against military coups.
In another hearing on July 18, 2018, Ünal said he did not travel to the U.S. under the orders of an organization and did not have a close relationship with Gülen, reports said. “I have no activity but my writing. I am on trial for my ideas. I just wrote columns,” Ünal said at the hearing. The prosecution and their witnesses argued that Ünal was a close adviser to Gülen, according to the same reports.
A court in Uşak on November 14, 2018, convicted Ünal of “founding and leading an armed terrorist organization” and sentenced him to 19 years and six months in prison, the news website Diken reported. The court acquitted the journalist of coup-related charges, according to the report.
In his final statement to the court, Ünal said that he was not named as an organization leader in any other FETÖ trials so he did not understand why he was being tried as one. He said, “I have no connections to any terrorist organizations. I started to travel to the U.S. after 1996 for translating books. I have met with Fethullah Gülen five to six times. He liked me asking questions, so I have had some meetings. I do not know anybody from the organization’s structure in the military, judiciary, or police. The prosecution accuses me of ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.’ I heard of the coup on July 16, on the TV.”
Ayşe Süeda Ünal, the journalist’s niece, who is also his lawyer, told CPJ in late 2019 that a local court rejected their appeal in April 2019, without a hearing. In a phone interview in late 2021, she added that the Constitutional Court rejected their appeal over the journalist’s unjust arrest in December 2020 and the Supreme Court of Appeals rejected their appeal of his convictions in April 2021.
She said she filed another appeal to the Constitutional Court in June 2021 for violation of the right to a fair trial, and was awaiting a response.
Ayşe Ünal told CPJ that her uncle had been transferred to a hospital in July 2020 due to an enlarged heart, and was later returned to Izmir No. 1 F-Type Prison in Izmir province’s Buca district, where he is being held alone in a cell.
She said her uncle had been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the anti-pandemic measures taken by the prison were satisfactory. However, during that July 2020 hospital transfer, he was handcuffed in a car with no open windows, she said, adding that the journalist’s legal team filed a complaint to the Justice Ministry about the conditions of that transfer.
She added that the journalist is 67 years old and has low hemoglobin levels and malnutrition problems due to the prolonged imprisonment.
CPJ emailed the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2021 for comment, but did not receive any reply.