Mehmet Baransu

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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 is appealing the verdict to the Supreme Court of Appeals, according to news reports. CPJ was unable to determine the status of that appeal as of late 2021. 

Hearings in the Sledgehammer trial continued in Istanbul as of October 2021, according to local freedom of expression news website Expression Interrupted. Baransu was the only defendant in that case who remained behind bars, according to that report.

Baransu is also facing multiple cases based on accusations of insult related to his social media presence.

On June 30, 2015, the Anadolu Second Court of the First Instance sentenced Baransu 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 that the lawyers filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court about the fines.

When CPJ spoke with Nesibe Baransu in late 2019, she said that 120 insult cases were open against her husband, four of which were at the appeal stage.

Both his wife and lawyer have complained about Baransu’s treatment in prison over the years, in terms of his health and his ability to prepare his defense. Nesibe Baransu said that in late 2019, the prison was not granting her husband the full time in the court preparation room as required by law. Each prisoner should have 12 hours a week to access a room equipped with a computer and photocopier. Baransu was allowed five hours a week, his wife said. Baransu’s lawyer had a court order sent to the management, which helped to increase the time to nine hours. The journalist’s wife said the restrictions had limited her husband’s right to a fair defense.

During the state of emergency imposed after the failed attempted coup in 2016, Baransu, like other journalists accused of terrorism activity, had access to a lawyer for only one hour a week. Prison staff recorded and monitored the meetings, Bayrak said. The journalist had limited access to documents and books required to prepare his defense, and authorities denied him access to a book that he wrote, Bayrak said.

Nesibe Baransu told CPJ in late 2016 that her husband was deliberately kept hungry, held in filthy conditions, verbally abused, and mistreated while being transferred from prison to various courts for his hearings.

In late 2017, Baransu had developed health problems because of the poor treatment he received, his lawyer said at the time. Authorities denied Baransu’s request to be transferred to a hospital because of lack of personnel, the lawyer said. Bayrak said that authorities kept the journalist in a cell without heating for weeks when he was temporarily transferred to Mersin for his trial. He was not given food when he was taken to court in Istanbul for the hearings of the other trials. He had limited access to toilet facilities, Bayrak said.

Nesibe Baransu said her husband has high cholesterol and insomnia, but has been given access to doctors.

As of late 2019, Baransu was jailed in Silivri Prison in Istanbul. He was moved from an isolated cell to one with two other prisoners, his wife said. CPJ repeatedly called and texted the journalist’s wife and lawyer in September and October 2021 for updates on his case, but did not receive any replies. 

CPJ emailed the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2021 for comment, but did not receive any reply.