Mehmet Baransu, a former columnist and correspondent for the daily Taraf, faces an array of charges and trials that originally stemmed from his 2010 reporting on an alleged coup attempt. Since his arrest in Istanbul on March 1, Baransu is facing a series of anti-state, insult, and obtaining secret document charges in at least four separate court cases, and has been represented by a series of lawyers.
The first set of charges relate to his March 2015 arrest. A court on March 2 arraigned the journalist and jailed him pending trial on charges of obtaining secret documents. If convicted in that case, he could face up to eight years in jail.
His former lawyer, Sercan Sakallı, told CPJ that a court order 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 previously 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 in 2010, 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.
On June 30, 2015, the Anadolu Second Court of the First Instance sentenced Baransu to 10 months in prison on additional 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.
Baransu’s wife, Nesibe, told CPJ in September 2018 that in 2018, authorities reopened 15 trials related to the journalist’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 lire (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. She said that as of late 2018, neither the local courts or the European Court of Human Rights had responded to their appeals.
Sakallı, the journalist’s former lawyer in the obtaining secrets document case, told CPJ that several other cases were pending in Turkish courts against Baransu that stem from his critical reporting in 2013 on issues such as the alleged genetic modification of food products in Turkey and government wrongdoing. In these cases, Baransu is accused of being a member of the alleged Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization--a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, the lawyer said. The Turkish government claims Gülen’s group, which it calls FETÖ/PDY, was behind a failed coup attempt in July 2016. As of late 2018, the case was ongoing.
A further of charges was added to Baransu's list of alleged crimes in 2016, according to press reports.
As of 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 Bylock app users, including Baransu, to the court, according to reports in May 2017. Authorities claim that use of the encrypted communications app is evidence of FETÖ/PDY membership. 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.
Nesibe Baransu, the journalist's wife, 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.
Baransu has developed health problems because of the poor treatment he receives in prison, the lawyer said in late 2017. 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 has limited access to toilet facilities, Bayrak said.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment in 2018 on claims that jailed journalists are mistreated.
Due to the state of emergency imposed after the failed attempted coup in 2016, Baransu, like other journalists accused of terrorism charges, has access to a lawyer for only one hour a week. Prison staff record and monitor the meetings, Bayrak said. The journalist has limited access to documents and books required to prepare his defense, and authorities denied him access to a book that he wrote, Bayrak said.
As of late 2018, Baransu was jailed in Silivri Prison in Istanbul. Baransu’s wife, Nesibe, told CPJ in September 2018 that her husband is now represented by a lawyer named Yahya Engin. Nesibe Baransu said her husband is currently detained pending the outcome of his various trials.