Hanım Büşra Erdal, a former columnist and court reporter for the shuttered daily newspaper Zaman, is one of several journalists imprisoned after the failed 2016 coup attempt. In 2018 she was found guilty of being a member of a terrorist organization. The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld her conviction in March 2020.
Police on July 26, 2016, detained Erdal, who was then 35, at her family’s home in the western Turkish province of Manisa, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu News Agency reported.
She was subsequently transferred to Istanbul to be investigated as part of a broad purge of suspected followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government accuses of maintaining a terrorist organization and "parallel state structure" (FETÖ/PDY, by its Turkish acronym) and of masterminding a July 15, 2016, failed military coup.
Istanbul’s First Court of Penal Peace on July 29, 2016, ordered the journalist jailed pending trial on charges of membership in a terrorist organization, in large part based on her long employment at Zaman, according to the arraignment, which CPJ reviewed. An Istanbul court in March 2016 ordered the Feza Media Group, which owned Zaman and several other media outlets, placed under trustees appointed by the government on the grounds that the court considered it a FETÖ/PDY mouthpiece. The government used emergency powers assumed after the failed July 15, 2016, military coup to order the newspaper closed by decree on July 27, 2016.
According to the arraignment, the state alleged that Erdal was detained as she was destroying evidence against her, an allegation that her lawyer, Ümit Kardaş, disputed in his appeal of the order to jail Erdal pending trial, which CPJ also reviewed. According to Turkish law, any suspicion of tampering with evidence or preventing evidence from being collected during an investigation can be used to justify pretrial detention.
Kardaş said in the appeal that the allegation of destroying evidence was "imaginary." He said Erdal had wanted to turn herself in to police as soon as she learned from the press that she was wanted, but that police told her not to move, and that they would come for her at her family’s home.
Erdal’s lawyer wrote in the appeal that police did not search the journalist’s family’s house, but instead searched her apartment in Istanbul, and found books by Gülen.
Prosecutors asked Erdal about a July 12, 2016, opinion article she wrote, headlined "Are you aware of danger?" in the newspaper Yeni Hayat, which former Zaman journalists launched after a court placed Zaman’s parent company under trusteeship. Prosecutors also asked her about the books by Gülen that police found in her apartment, and about her activity on Twitter. Prosecutors also asked her whether she knew Hidayet Karaca, the jailed head of Samanyolu Broadcasting Group.
Erdal was tried with several co-accused. In the original indictment, all but one of them 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 Erdal’s case, prosecutors cited as evidence her articles at Zaman and Yeni Hayat and her social media activity.
When the trial started in March 2017, an Istanbul court ordered Erdal 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.
Erdal’s lawyer, Kardaş, told CPJ in September 2017 that the court order that blocked his client’s release was dated April 3, two days after Erdal was prevented from leaving the prison. Kardaş said he planned to appeal to the Constitutional Court about the procedural violation. He said that Erdal had low morale and that after she was detained again, she lost her hope in the law.
An Istanbul court on March 8, 2018, found Erdal and at least 21 of the other journalists on trial guilty of "being a member of a [terrorist] organization,” and sentenced Erdal to six years and three months in prison, according to reports.
The court acquitted all the defendants of the more serious coup-related charges in the second indictment. At least 18 of the journalists were sent to prison for varying prison terms. Two of them—Atilla Taş and Murat Aksoy—were sentenced and released for time served, and the journalists Bünyamin Köseli and Cihan Acar remain free pending appeal, according to reports.
In response to a June 2018 poll of jailed journalists carried out by the P24 Independent Journalism Association, Erdal said that she had trouble with access to the infirmary and that the state did not pay for some medication that she needed. Erdal did not specify what problems she had with the infirmary. The journalist said that police strip-searched her when she was first detained.
Erdal’s lawyer, Kardaş, told CPJ in late 2019 that the journalist’s health was satisfactory and she had no complaints about her treatment in prison. The lawyer said that the journalist had access to books, newspapers, and mail and that the prison conditions were better compared to the first year.
As of late 2019, the Constitutional Court had not heard a petition made on her behalf in October 2018, Kardaş said. CPJ was unable to determine any updates to the Constitutional Court petition as of late 2020.
The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the local court’s verdict for Erdal, as well as the 16 other journalists on trial, on March 16, 2020, according to the official judgment, which was not posted on Turkey’s e-justice system, known as UYAP, until June 8, when the judgment became official, local freedom of expression news website Expression Interrupted reported. Five other journalists who were Erdal’s co-defendants were released on June 16 after their convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
According to an open letter from Erdal, which was published by news website T24 on September 5, 2020, the journalist’s plea for parole—release on probation for the remainder of her sentence—was denied, and she remains in Bakırköy Prison in Istanbul.
As of late 2020, Erdal’s lawyer, Kardaş, had not responded to CPJ’s emailed requests for updates. CPJ was unable to determine any updates to the journalist’s case or her health.
CPJ emailed a request for comment on Erdal’s case to the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2020, but did not receive a reply.