Balbay, a columnist and former Ankara representative for the leftist-ultranationalist daily Cumhuriyet (The Republic), was detained as part of the government’s investigation into the alleged Ergenekon plot, a shadowy conspiracy that authorities claimed was aimed at overthrowing the government through a military coup.
Balbay was initially detained on July 1, 2008, brought to Istanbul, and questioned about his news coverage and his relations with the military and other Ergenekon suspects. Police searched his house and the Ankara office of Cumhuriyet and confiscated computers and documents, but released him four days later. Balbay was detained a second time in March 2009 and placed at Silivri F Type Prison in Istanbul pending trial. He was moved to solitary confinement in February 2011.
His lawyers filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights alleging violations of due process. Despite being imprisoned, Balbay was elected a parliamentary deputy on the Republican People’s Party ticket in Izmir province in the June 2011 election.
The charges against Balbay included being a member of an armed terrorist organization; attempting to overthrow the government; provoking an armed uprising; unlawfully obtaining, using, and destroying documents concerning government security; and disseminating classified information.
The evidence against Balbay included documents seized from his property and office, the news stories he produced, wiretapped telephone conversations, and secretly recorded meetings with senior military and government officials. Balbay denied the government’s accusations and, in columns written from prison and in court hearings, repeatedly said that the seized notes and recorded conversations were related to his journalism.
In its indictment, the government said Balbay had kept detailed records of his meetings with military and political figures. Authorities alleged that Balbay had erased the notes from his computer but technicians were able to retrieve them from the hard drive. The notes-some of which dated back to the period before the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won power-showed military officials discussing how they could alter Turkish politics. For example, in notes dated April 6, 2003, a general identified as Yaşar asked the columnist: “Tell me, Mr. Balbay, can a coup be staged today with this media structure? It can’t. You cannot do something today without the media backing you. You are the only one entreating secularism. The other papers are publishing photographs of women with covered heads every day, almost trying to make it sympathetic.”
In public comments, Balbay said he had been keeping the notes for journalistic purposes, including for use in a potential book. He said the government’s indictment quoted excerpts out of context and in a way that made him appear guilty. In the indictment, Balbay was quoted as saying that he had erased the files after concluding their use would not be right.
Participants in the conversations included İlhan Selçuk, the now-deceased chief editor of Cumhuriyet and an Ergenekon suspect before his death in June 2010; Generals Şener Eruygur, Aytaç Yalman, and Şenkal Atasagun; and former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. The indictment identified Selçuk as a leader of Ergenekon and accused Balbay of acting as secretary in organizing meetings and keeping notes under cover of journalism. Military officials considered Cumhuriyet a favorite because they shared the paper’s positions on secularism and the Kurdish issue.
The government also said it found classified documents in Balbay’s possession, including military reports on neighboring countries and assessments on political Islam in Turkey. Balbay said news sources had provided him with the documents and that he was using them for journalistic purposes.
Two taped conversations at the gendarmerie headquarters-dated December 23, 2003, and January 5, 2004-were also cited as evidence. The government alleged that, among other topics, Balbay and other participants had discussed whether political conditions would allow a coup. Balbay said such discussions were theoretical and constituted no criminal intent.
The government also cited Balbay’s news coverage, including a May 2003 story headlined “The Young Officers Are Restless.” The phrase had been used previously in Turkish politics and was seen as code for a potential military coup. The story claimed that Hilmi Özkök, then the military’s chief of general staff, had warned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about perceived anti-military pressure from the ruling AKP. Özkök denounced the story as false at the time. Authorities claimed that Balbay’s own notes showed that Atilla Ateş, then the commander of Turkish land forces, had congratulated him for the piece by saying, “You did your duty.”
In August 2013, the 13th Court of Serious Crimes in Istanbul sentenced Balbay and at least 19 other journalists to varying prison terms in the Ergenekon case, according to news reports. Balbay was given a term of 34 years and eight months for allegedly “attempting to overthrow the Turkish Government or trying to prevent its duty to perform,” according to an updated list of imprisoned journalists provided by the Justice Ministry in November 2013 at CPJ’s request.
Balbay appealed the verdict before Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals. The appeal was ongoing in late 2013. He was being held at the Ankara L Type Closed Prison No. 1, according to the Justice Ministry’s updated list.