Mutlu Çölgeçen, a former news coordinator for the shuttered daily newspaper Millet, is one of several journalists imprisoned after the failed 2016 coup attempt. In 2018, he was found guilty of being a member of a terrorist organization. The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld his conviction in March 2020.
Police detained Çölgeçen in Istanbul on August 31, 2016. Istanbul First Court of Penal Peace ordered the journalist jailed pending trial on September 2, 2016.
According to records of his arraignment hearing, which CPJ reviewed, when asked about his work for Millet, the journalist told the court that he had worked as a journalist since 1994 at various newspapers and television channels before joining Millet in September 2014 as the news coordinator. He told the court he quit the newspaper on August 21, 2015, following an argument he had with a colleague, and that he had been unemployed since.
The journalist denied that he was a follower of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government accuses of maintaining a terrorist organization and "parallel state structure" in Turkey (FETÖ/PDY, by its Turkish acronym) and of masterminding a July 15, 2016, failed military coup. Çölgeçen denied having any connection to the failed military coup.
The court ordered him jailed based on its "strong suspicion" that Çölgeçen "willingly and knowingly helped the organization.”
Millet was one of several media outlets owned by the Koza İpek Group, which the government took over in October 2015, alleging it had links to FETÖ/PDY. Trustees appointed by the government hollowed out media outlets the company owned and shut them down in March 2016, saying they were not financially viable.
Çölgeçen was tried with several other journalists arrested after the attempted coup. All but one of them were charged with “being a member of an armed [terrorist] organization,” which carries up to 10 years in prison, according to the indictment.
CPJ found the indictment 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 indictment accused the defendants of manipulating the public perception of FETÖ to turn citizens against the government, which prosecutors argued made them members of the group that Turkey alleges is behind the attempted coup.
Prosecutors presented as evidence against Çölgeçen his employment at Millet, his appearance as a guest on a TV debate on alleged government corruption, and his social media activity. Prosecutors accused Çölgeçen of producing false news about prominent cases–including the alleged Ergenekon and Sledgehammer plots to destabilize the government–while he was working at pro-government media outlets, including the daily Sabah. At the time those cases were reported, the Gülenists and the government were allies.
When the trial started in March 2017, an Istanbul court ordered Çölgeçen and four of his co-accused to be detained for the duration of the trial, according to news reports.
An Istanbul court on March 8, 2018, found Çölgeçen and at least 21 of the other journalists on trial guilty of "being a member of a [terrorist] organization,” and sentenced Çölgeçen 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 remain free pending the appeal, according to reports.
Murat Yılmaz, a lawyer who had been representing the journalist, told CPJ that as of September 2019, Çölgeçen was no longer his client. He did not have details of a new lawyer.
Yılmaz told CPJ that as of late 2019, the Constitutional Court has not heard an individual petition filed for the journalist. The lawyer added that the journalist’s health was good at that time, and that he had access to reading materials and family visits.
The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the local court’s verdict for Çölgeçen, 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 Çölgeçen’s co-defendants were released on June 16 after their convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
Çölgeçen is being held in Silivri Prison in Istanbul.
As of late 2020, CPJ was unable to identify a current lawyer for Çölgeçen, and was unable to determine any updates to the journalist’s case or to his health status.
CPJ emailed a request for comment on Çölgeçen’s case to the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2020, but did not receive a reply.