Mümtaz’er Türköne

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Mümtaz’er Türköne, a former columnist for the shuttered daily Zaman, is serving over 10 years in prison after being convicted of “being a member of a terrorist organization.” The journalist needs surgery for a heart condition, but has delayed the procedure because of concerns about being able to recuperate safely in prison.  

Police in the western province of Yalova detained  Türköne, a then-60-year-old political scientist and columnist for the shuttered daily newspaper Zaman, on July 27, 2016, as part of a broad purge of suspected followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government accuses Gülen of maintaining a terrorist organization and parallel state structure in Turkey (FETÖ/PDY, by its Turkish acronym) and masterminding a July 15, 2016, failed military coup.

Authorities subsequently transferred Türköne to Istanbul for questioning, and Istanbul’s Third Court of Penal Peace on August 4, 2016, ordered him jailed, pending trial on charges of "serving to the aims of the terrorist organization FETÖ/PDY."

According to the court records of his arraignment, the state alleged that Türköne was "a columnist at a newspaper issued in the name of the organization, and that he served the aims of the organization with his articles."

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. The government used emergency powers it assumed after the failed July 15, 2016, military coup to order the newspaper closed by decree on July 27, 2016.

According to court documents, Türköne told the court that he had been a political scientist for 30 years and that he had written 16 books. He said the idea to "call on the people to take to the streets in case of a military coup, as President Erdoğan did," originated with him. On the night of the failed military coup, the Turkish president called on citizens to fill the streets to foil the plans. Türköne told the court that he spoke about this idea on many television shows and in many newspaper columns prior to July 2016 as a means of foiling future coup attempts.

Türköne said that police produced five of his articles as evidence of his support for the attempted coup. The columnist denied the allegations, and said all the articles were calling for alternative democratic solutions, and the removal of the government through elections.

"I know Fethullah Gülen. I know that Zaman newspaper was under his control," Türköne told the court. "As an author, to reach a wider audience, I preferred to write in Zaman, which [had] the highest circulation in Turkey."

"During the time I wrote for Zaman, there was no open intervention about what to write. Sometimes [staff] reminded me of current issues and advised me to write about different issues. No intervention happened over any article I wrote. I also do not feel I am dependent on the editorial policy of the newspaper," Türköne told the court.

Türköne was on trial alongside 30 journalists and media workers and an academic. All were charged with “attempting, through violence and force, to disrupt and replace the order as recognized by Turkey’s Constitution,” “attempting through violence and force to eliminate or prevent Parliament from carrying out its duties,” and “being a member of an armed terrorist organization.” The trial’s first hearing was in Istanbul on September 18, 2017, according to local reports.

In the indictment, reviewed by CPJ, the prosecution said that the defendants’ journalism, including opinion pieces or their employment by pro-Gülen outlets such as the daily Zaman and Cihan News Agency, is evidence that the journalists were part of the alleged terror group.

The indictment accused the journalists—which it referred to as “the media force of the terrorist organization”—of producing false news to weaken the government, insult or humiliate the authorities, attempt to disrupt the peace, and to create an environment suitable for a coup.

Türköne denied the charges, according to the indictment.

An Istanbul court on July 6, 2018, found Türköne guilty of "being a member of an armed [terrorist] organization" and sentenced him to 10 years and six months in prison, according to news reports. The court acquitted Türköne on the other charges. 

Melike Polat, a lawyer who is representing the journalist, told CPJ that a local appeals court upheld the journalist’s July 6, 2018 conviction and sentence. As of late 2019, the Supreme Court of Appeals had not heard the appeal, the lawyer said.

Polat said they submitted an appeal to the Constitutional Court of Turkey on the grounds that Türköne’s arrest was unlawful and in violation of the rights to press freedom and freedom of expression, as well as personal freedom and security. An appeal to the European Court of Human Rights were made on the same grounds. As of late 2019, neither appeal had been heard.  

The lawyer added that Türköne is on trial in at least two separate cases, in which he is accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. One count is related to when Erdoğan was prime minister. Polat said that Türköne attended court sessions via teleconference for one of the cases on April 24, July 10, and September 11, 2019. 

An Istanbul court on October 31, 2019 convicted Türköne of insulting Erdoğan, while he was prime minister, in a March 2014 Zaman column, and fined him 1,740 Turkish lira, the Anatolia Agency reported. The journalist, who attended the hearing from prison via teleconference, had previously been acquitted of the charge. However, in 2018, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the 2016 acquittal and ordered a retrial, which is ongoing, Polat said.

Polat said that restrictions imposed on visits during the state of emergency have been lifted, and lawyers can now meet with their clients without limitations and surveillance. Türköne has the right to weekly non-contact family visits, and monthly visits with contact. He is allowed to use the telephone for 10 minutes each week. 

Türköne has a heart condition and was transferred to a hospital in July 2019, the lawyer said. The doctors told the journalist that he needs open heart surgery but that it was not urgent, and they fitted him with a stent as a temporary measure. Türköne has not had the operation because he does not think the prison is well equipped or hygienic enough for recovery after the operation. Polat said that the journalist has access to medical aid.  

Türköne is being held at Silivri prison in Istanbul.