Mehmet Baransu, a former columnist and correspondent for the Turkish daily Taraf, has faced an array of charges and trials stemming from his 2010 reporting on an alleged coup attempt. Since his arrest in Istanbul on March 1, 2015, authorities have filed over 100 cases against Baransu, including charges of insult and obtaining secret documents. In July 2020, he was convicted on anti-state charges in one of the cases against him and sentenced to a combined 19 years and six months in prison.
A court on March 2, 2015, first arraigned Baransu and jailed him pending trial on charges of obtaining secret documents. His former lawyer, Sercan Sakallı, told CPJ that a court ruled that the investigation in that case was secret until the indictment was written, which limited his access to the evidence against his client.
The lawyer said authorities focused on a document titled "The Sovereign Action Plan" that was part of a packet of documents Baransu shared with prosecutors in 2010. That document, the lawyer said, was never made public, and authorities did not at the time question the reporter’s possession of a classified document.
In 2010, Baransu broke the news of an alleged military coup plan that came to be known as Sledgehammer. Written by Baransu and other then-editors of Taraf as a series, the Sledgehammer story was based on what were said to be military documents leaked to Baransu by an anonymous source. "The Sovereign Action Plan" was among these documents, but it was not reported on because it was not related to the alleged coup plan, according to local reports. In court testimony, Baransu said he delivered the documents he had received from the anonymous source to prosecutors after Taraf published its series. The documents were then used by Turkish prosecutors to start an investigation in which hundreds of suspects, including journalists, were tried on anti-state charges.
In late 2016, Baransu, alongside four other former Taraf journalists and an author, faced another trial in connection to the alleged "Sledgehammer" conspiracy, according to reports. Istanbul’s 13th Court for Serious Crimes was considering new charges of "founding and leading an armed terrorist organization," "making propaganda for [a terrorist] organization," "exposing information that is to be kept secret for the safety and political benefit of the state," "obtaining secret documents concerning the safety of the state," and "damaging, using outside of its purpose, [and] obtaining [or] stealing … documents concerning the safety of the state," according to the indictment, which CPJ reviewed. These charges collectively carry a maximum sentence of 75 years in prison, according to a report by the media monitoring organization P24.
The National Intelligence Agency (MIT) sent a list of alleged users of the Bylock app, including Baransu, to the court, according to reports in May 2017. Authorities claim that use of the encrypted communications app is evidence of membership in the alleged Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization, which the government calls FETÖ/PDY. Ahmet Emre Bayrak, who was representing the journalist in 2017, told CPJ at the time that his client denied the accusations and said that he had done nothing but practice journalism.
Sakallı, the journalist’s former lawyer in the case about obtaining secrets document, told CPJ that several other cases pending in Turkish courts against Baransu stem from his critical reporting in 2013 on issues such as the alleged genetic modification of rice in Turkey and government wrongdoing. In these cases, Baransu is accused of being a FETÖ/PDY member, the lawyer said. The Turkish government claims FETÖ/PDY was behind a failed coup attempt in July 2016.
Under Turkish law, trials have to be merged with the case that has the longest maximum sentence. However, the courts hearing the trials for the Sledgehammer case, which carries a maximum sentence of 75 years, and the rice case, which carries a life sentence, resisted attempts to merge the cases, the journalist’s wife, Nesibe Baransu, told CPJ in September 2019.
On July 19, 2020, the Mersin 2nd High Criminal Court found Baransu guilty of “being a member of a [terrorist] organization,” and sentenced him to 13 years and six months in prison; “violation of secrecy,” (two years); and “revealing forbidden information,” (four years) in the rice case; he received a total sentence of 19 years and six months in prison, according to news reports. Baransu, who was on trial with 69 other defendants, pleaded not guilty; the court denied his request for release pending appeal, the reports said.
Baransu’s lawyer, Çiğdem Koç told CPJ in October 2022 that the Supreme Court of Appeals ordered a retrial in this case, which started that month; the second hearing was set for February 2023.
In the “rice case,” Koç said the local appeals court approved the local court’s verdict; the case is now waiting to be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeals. This is the only case for which Baransu is still under an arrest order, Koç said.
The trial related to "The Sovereign Action Plan" document ended on March 4, 2022. Baransu, the only defendant in that case who remained behind bars, was found guilty of "exposing information that is to be kept secret for the safety and political benefit of the state" and "obtaining secret documents concerning the safety of the state" by the 13th Istanbul Court of Serious Crimes, and was sentenced to six years and seven years, respectively. Baransu’s co-defendants were also found guilty of "obtaining secret documents concerning the safety of the state" and sentenced to three years and four months in prison, but remained free pending appeal.
Koç told CPJ in late October that this verdict was revoked by an appeals court in October 10, but the date for the retrial has yet to be set. Baransu was released from his status of arrest for this trial, but he remains behind bars due to his arrest in relation to the “rice case.”
Separately, the Anadolu Second Court of the First Instance sentenced Baransu on June 30, 2015, to 10 months in prison on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a series of tweets and retweets about allegations of government corruption in December 2013, Sakallı told CPJ at the time. Sakallı said some of the tweets had been issued from accounts impersonating the journalist.
Nesibe Baransu told CPJ in September 2018 that earlier that year, authorities reopened 15 trials related to her husband’s social media presence, despite the Appeals Court already approving the final rulings of suspended sentences that a lower court handed down. In two of the retrials, the courts ordered Baransu to pay a fine of 20,000 Turkish lira (US$3,320) or do 200 hours’ work in a prison. Nesibe Baransu said the lawyers filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court about the fines.
Koç told CPJ in 2022 that Baransu still faces more than 50 active insult cases related to his social media presence.
Koç said Baransu’s lawyers have filed many applications made to the Constitutional Court in past years and these range from long term arrest to violation of personal freedoms but none has been answered yet.
As of late 2022, Baransu was jailed in Silivri Prison in Istanbul.
In 2016 and 2017, Baransu’s wife and lawyer at the time told CPJ that he was mistreated by the authorities in prison and during transfers to the court hearings. They said he was kept hungry, held in filthy conditions, verbally abused, and given limited toilet access. The journalist also had limited access to his lawyer and a request to be transferred to a hospital was denied, according to these sources. The journalist’s wife said the restrictions had limited her husband’s right to a fair defense.
Koç told CPJ in October 2022 that she visits her client once a week, adding that Baransu had developed a mild kidney problem and while he has access to medical treatment, being transferred in handcuffs is “disturbing for all prisoners both physically and psychologically.”
CPJ emailed the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2022 for comment but did not receive any reply.