Police in Istanbul on July 25, 2016, detained Halil İbrahim Balta–a business reporter for the daily newspaper Yarına Bakış who previously worked with the shuttered daily newspaper Zaman–as part of a sweeping purge of suspected followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government accuses Gülen of maintaining a terrorist organization and “parallel state structure” (FETÖ/PDY, as the government calls it) within Turkey that it alleges masterminded a failed July 15, 2016, military coup. Istanbul’s 10th Court of Penal Peace on August 3, 2016, ordered Balta jailed pending trial on the charge of “willingly and knowingly aiding an armed terrorist organization.”
According to the record of Balta’s arraignment hearing, which CPJ has reviewed, Balta denied the accusation, saying that he had no ties to the Gülenist movement, and that he had turned himself in to police upon learning there was a warrant for his arrest.
According to the court document, prosecutors questioned Balta about his work for Zaman. Balta said he worked for the newspaper for 23 years, but moved to Yarına Bakış after a court in March 2016 ordered the government to appoint trustees to manage Feza Media Group, which published Zaman, saying the company had links to the Gülenist network. The government then used emergency powers it assumed after the failed coup attempt to order the newspaper closed by decree on July 27, 2016.
Prosecutors also asked the journalist about his activity on Twitter, the court documents recorded, without indicating what, if any, specific social media activity concerned the prosecutors. Balta replied that he had no intent to disseminate propaganda for a banned organization and that he had practiced only journalism at Zaman.
The court ordered Balta jailed pending trial on the basis that his employment at Zaman and Yarına Bakış was sufficient evidence for a “reasonable suspicion” that he “willingly and knowingly aided” FETÖ/PDY, according to the record of the hearing.
Balta is one of 17 co-accused on trial together. In the original indictment, all but one were charged with “being a member of an armed [terrorist] organization,” which carries up to 10 years in prison, according to news reports. The indictment accused the defendants of manipulating public perception of FETÖ to turn people against the government, which, prosecutors argued, made them members of the group.
CPJ found the indictment to be similar to those presented at trials of other journalists in Turkey. Prosecutors cited as evidence journalistic activity or acts of free speech and communication, or cited circumstantial evidence such as being employed by a certain media outlet or having an account at a bank allegedly linked to Gülenists.
In Balta’s case, prosecutors cited as evidence his social media activity, his account at Bank Asya, which the government alleges is a Gülenist institution, and pro-Gülenists books found in his home.
When the trial started in March 2017, an Istanbul court ordered Balta and several of the other journalists to be released while the case was heard, according to news reports. Prosecutors successfully appealed the decision, and authorities ordered an investigation into the judges who had ordered the release and they were relieved of duty, according to the reports.
Balta was in Silivri Prison, Istanbul.