Mustafa Erkan Acar is one of several journalists imprisoned after the failed 2016 coup attempt. He has twice been charged in joint trials. In 2018, he was acquitted of charges that linked him to the coup attempt, but found guilty of being a member of a terrorist organization. The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld his conviction in March 2020.
Police in Istanbul detained Acar, a former editor for the shuttered newspaper Zaman, as part of a sweeping purge of journalists and others suspected of following exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, according to press reports. The government accuses Gülen of maintaining a terrorist organization and "parallel state structure" (or FETÖ/PDY, as the government calls it) within Turkey that it blames for orchestrating a failed July 15, 2016, military coup.
CPJ could not determine when exactly police detained Acar. The state-run Anadolu News Agency on July 25, 2016, reported that authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest.
Istanbul’s Fifth Court of Penal Peace late on July 29, 2016, arraigned Acar and 16 other journalists, ordering them jailed pending trial on charges of "being members of an armed terrorist organization," according to the media monitoring group P24. The daily newspaper Hürriyet reported that the 17 journalists were questioned by prosecutors on accusations of "being members of an armed terrorist organization," "founding or leading an armed terrorist organization," "knowingly and willingly helping [a terrorist] organization without being involved in the organization’s hierarchical structure," and "committing crimes in the name of a [terrorist] organization without being a member."
In March 2016, a court ordered Zaman’s parent company, the Feza Media Group, put under government trustees, saying the company and the newspaper had ties to the Gülenist network. On July 27, 2016, the government used emergency powers to close the publication. CPJ research shows that authorities have targeted dozens of former journalists from media outlets owned by the Feza Media Group with arrest and prosecution on terrorism charges since the failed coup attempt.
When the trial started in March 2017, an Istanbul court ordered Acar and several of the other journalists with whom he was being tried to be released while the case was heard. However, authorities brought fresh charges and the journalists were ordered to remain in custody, according to reports. Authorities ordered an investigation into the judges who had ordered the release and they were relieved of duty, according to reports.
In the original indictment, all but one of the co-accused were charged with “being a member of an armed [terrorist] organization,” which carries up to 10 years in prison. The second indictment listed the charges as “attempting, through violence and force, to disrupt and replace the order as recognized by Turkey’s Constitution” and “attempting through violence and force to eliminate or prevent Parliament from carrying out its duties.” Both charges carry a maximum life sentence without parole.
CPJ found both indictments to be similar to those presented at trials of other journalists in Turkey. Prosecutors cited as evidence in these cases journalistic activity or acts of free speech and communication, or cited circumstantial evidence such as being employed by a certain media outlet or having an account at a bank allegedly linked to Gülenists.
The first indictment accused the defendants of manipulating the public perception of FETÖ to turn citizens against the government, which prosecutors argued, made the journalists members of the group that Turkey alleges was behind the failed attempted coup. The second indictment, which was presented as an addition to the original case, argued that the journalists should be held responsible for more than alleged membership to the group.
Prosecutors presented as evidence against Acar his employment at the dailies Zaman, Bugün, and Özgür Düşünce, as well as his membership in a non-governmental organization called the Media Ethics Board. The second indictment listed as evidence that he and his family had accounts at Bank Asya, which the government alleged to be a Gülenist institution; his membership in an allegedly pro-Gülenist union; and communication records with people who were wanted or were on trial for alleged Gülenist activity. Some of these people had the Bylock app on their phones, according to the authorities who view the application as evidence of being a FETÖ member. Acar did not have the app on his phone, according to the indictment.
An Istanbul court on March 8, 2018, found Acar and at least 21 of the other journalists on trial guilty of "being a member of a [terrorist] organization,” and sentenced Acar to seven years and six months in prison, according to reports.
The court acquitted all the defendants of the more serious coup-related charges in the second indictment. At least 18 of the journalists were sent to prison for varying prison terms. Two of them—Atilla Taş and Murat Aksoy—were sentenced and released for time served, and the journalists Bünyamin Köseli and Cihan Acar remained free pending the appeal, according to reports.
The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the local court’s verdict for Acar, as well as the 16 other journalists on trial, on March 16, 2020, according to the official judgment, which was not posted on Turkey’s e-justice system, known as UYAP, until June 8, when the judgment became official, local freedom of expression news website Expression Interrupted reported. Five other journalists who were Acar’s co-defendants were released on June 16 after their convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
Acar’s lawyer at the time, Barış Topuk, told CPJ in late 2019 that the journalist had sleep apnea and needed a breathing device. The journalist briefly had issues in obtaining access to the device, but that was resolved and his health was fine, the lawyer said. He added that the journalist was allowed visits from family and lawyers.
Acar is being held in Istanbul’s Silivri Prison.
As of late 2020, CPJ was unable to determine any updates to the journalist’s legal status or his health.
Turkish lawyers, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told CPJ in September 2020 that İrem Danacıoğlu, Acar’s most recent legal representative, was among nearly 60 lawyers and law students taken into police custody across the country that month amid a new crackdown on members of the legal profession accused of having a connection to FETÖ, according to news reports. Thirty-three were imprisoned pending trial, while 27 were released on probation, reports said.
CPJ emailed a request for comment on Acar’s case to the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2020, but did not receive a reply.