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 CPJ, Turkish Press Council Urge Yilmaz to Release Imprisoned Journalists

Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 27, 1998óRepresentatives of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Press Council of Turkey urged Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz to accelerate pending reforms of Turkish press laws and to request an immediate review of 12 cases of imprisoned reporters and editors who the two groups say have been convicted on the basis of their work as journalists.

Press Council Chairman Oktay Eksi and CPJ Executive Director William A. Orme, Jr. asked the Yilmaz government to give the highest priority to the release of these journalists as a sign of its continued commitment to press freedom.

In a private meeting last night, Prime Minister Yilmaz agreed to examine the cases, and he reported that one legal reform initiative expected to be approved by parliament next month could result in the release of several of Turkey's imprisoned journalists. He added that he is confident that a major overhaul now under way of Turkey's penal code would end most criminal prosecutions of journalists. It will take at least six months for the Turkish parliament to conclude debate and pass the proposed legislation, he said.

"We are gratified that our collaboration with CPJ is producing important results," said Eksi. "It is clear from our conversations with the prime minister that he shares our goals. It is our hope that within a few months Turkey will no longer be mentioned as a country that imprisons more journalists than any other, but will instead be seen as a model for the strengthening of press freedom."

Said Orme, "We are greatly encouraged by the prime minister's commitment to continuing reform. We hope that he will make the release of these 12 imprisoned journalists a matter of the highest priority, as the court records make it absolutely clear that they were convicted unjustly, with prosecutors citing as evidence of alleged illegality their legally published journalistic work."

The imprisoned journalists discussed in yesterday's meeting are Ismail Besikçi, Hasan Özgün, Serdar Gelir, Mehmet Çakar, Bülent Öner, Kemal Sahin, Ibrahim Çiçek, Bülent Sümbül, Asaf Sah, Ayten Öztürk, Sadik Çelik and Haluk Gerger (see case details below).

The Press Council-CPJ initiative on behalf of the 12 was endorsed by the International Press Institute and the World Press Freedom Committee, among other journalists' organizations.

"Real journalists should not be in prison," said Yilmaz. "I do not consider any of these people security risks."

CPJ and the Press Council also held meetings with Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, Justice Minister Oltan Sungurlu, Human Rights Minister Hikmet Sami Turk, and the state minister in charge of media.

CPJ, the Press Council and other journalism groups have documented many other cases of journalists who have been imprisoned in Turkey on charges not directly related to freedom of expression. CPJ has identified as many as 20 others in Turkish prisons who it believes were convicted because of their work as journalists or because of their affiliation with publications subjected to official harassment in the past. Most were accused of alleged membership in or support for banned underground leftist factions or illegal armed separatist groups. The Press Council believes that while many of these prosecutions were marred by due process violations, these cases should not be categorized as press freedom violations. Both organizations urged the government to review all cases of journalists who may have been prosecuted because of their work or affiliation with legally circulating publications.

In July of 1997, a high-level CPJ delegation led by Vice Chairman Terry Anderson and board members Peter Arnett and Josh Friedman met with Prime Minister Yilmaz and his cabinet to seek an end to the prosecutions of journalists and the release of imprisoned journalists, including 1996 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient Ocak Isik Yurtçu. The initiative was supported strongly by the Press Council of Turkey, which also participated in the July meetings.

Yilmaz promised the delegation in July that his then week-old government would take immediate steps to free imprisoned journalists and would present a sweeping press law reform package to parliament. He said journalists and others should no longer be prosecuted on the basis of "their thoughts and their opinions." In August Turkey's parliament passed an amnesty law that led to the release of seven jailed editors, including Yurtçu. At least 30 other journalists have been released from Turkish prisons since Yilmaz took office, according to CPJ.

The 12 imprisoned Turkish journalists discussed with Prime Minister Yilmaz are:

Ismail Besikçi, imprisoned since November 13, 1993

Besikçi, a prominent scholar and author of numerous books and articles on the Kurds in Turkey, was arrested and charged with violating the Anti-Terror Law for an article he wrote in the now-defunct dailies Yeni Ülke and Özgür Gündem and for books on the subject. By the end of 1997, he had been sentenced to more than 100 years in prison, with additional charges pending against him.

Hasan Özgün, Özgür Gündem, imprisoned since December 9, 1993

Özgün's imprisonment was consistent with a pattern of official harassment of Özgür Gündem. Özgün, Diyarbakir correspondent for Özgür Gündem, was taken into custody during a police raid on the paper's Diyarbakir bureau and charged under Article 168 of the Penal Code of membership in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). He was sentenced to 12 years and five months in prison.

Kemal Sahin, Özgür Gündem, imprisoned since November 1995

Sahin, the former editor in chief of Ozgür Gündem, was arrested and charged with membership in the outlawed PKK. His prosecution and imprisonment conforms to a pattern of harassment against Özgur Gündem.

Serdar Gelir, Mücadele, imprisoned since April 25, 1994

Gelir, Ankara bureau chief for the now-defunct weekly magazine Mücadele, was arrested for allegedly belonging to an illegal organization. He was arrested after covering an opposition rally for Mücadele. He filed a story on the event. He was sentenced to more than 12 years.

Mehmet Çakar, Partizan Sesi, imprisoned since February 13, 1995

Çakar, Izmir bureau chief of the leftist monthly Partizan Sesi, was arrested and charged with membership in an outlawed organization. The prosecution based its case on the fact that Çakar had distributed copies of Partizan Sesi and had allegedly met with members of an outlawed organization. In court, Çakar denied the latter accusation. He was sentenced to 12 years and six months.

Bülent Öner, Atilim, imprisoned since June 15, 1995

Öner was taken into custody during a police raid on the newspaper's Mersin bureau on June 15. He was charged on June 24 with membership in the outlawed Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP), an accusation he denies. Government investigators allegedly found numerous unspecified "documents" linking Öner to the MLKP. Öner was convicted and sentenced to 12 years and six months.

Ibrahim Çiçek, Atilim, imprisoned since March 15, 1996

Çiçek, the editor in chief of the leftist weekly Atilim, was charged with membership in an illegal organization. According to his attorney, the only evidence against Çiçek was his affiliation with Atilim, which prosecutors asserted was an organ of the MLKP, making Çiçek allegedly a leader of the banned organization. He was also accused of ordering an armed assault on the offices of an ultra-right-wing party in Istanbul; the prosecutor's evidence was a story in Atilim on March 23, 1997, about the assault. Çiçek said that he was tortured by police while in custody. He was sentenced to 15 years.

Bülent Sümbül, Özgür Halk, imprisoned since April 24, 1995

Sümbül, a reporter in the Diyarbakir bureau of the pro-Kurdish monthly magazine Özgür Halk, was arrested during a police raid on the magazine's Diyarbakir bureau and charged under the Anti-Terror Law for allegedly aiding the PKK. Prosecutors accused him of "being the leader of an organizational cell, taking an active role in an illegal organization, [and] acting as liaison for militants in rural and urban areas." Sümbül denied the charges. He was convicted and sentenced to three years and nine months.

Sadik Çelik, Kurtulus, imprisoned since December 23, 1995

Çelik was detained and formally charged with membership in the outlawed Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). The state's case rested almost exclusively on his activities as Zonguldak bureau chief for Kurtulus. Çelik was accused of conducting "seminars" for the DHKP-C in the paper's office, of publishing reports in Kurtulus which were allegedly DHKP/C "propaganda," and of distributing Kurtulus in Zonguldak. Çelik was sentenced on October 17, 1996, to 12 years and six months.

Asaf Sah, Kurtulus, imprisoned since January 4, 1996

Sah, an Antakya reporter for Kurtulus, was imprisoned as part of a pattern of official harassment against the magazine. Sah was convicted under Article 169 of the Penal Code for aiding an outlawed organization. He was sentenced on April 16, 1996, to three years and nine months.

Ayten Öztürk, Kurtulus, imprisoned since October 13, 1997

Öztürk, the publisher and editor of Kurtulus, was charged with membership in the DHKP-C under Article 168/1 of the Penal Code. Özturk surrendered to the court on October 13. The main evidence cited at her trial was her publication and distribution of an edition of Kurtulus. She was convicted on December 24 , 1997, and sentenced to 22 years and five months.

Haluk Gerger, imprisoned since January 26, 1998

Gerger, a political scientist and writer, was jailed in Güdül Prison following the Court of Cassation's ratification of a one-year sentence imposed by the Court of Appeals in December, 1997. Gerger was convicted under Article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law. The charged was based on a December 15, 1993, article he wrote in Özgür Gündem about the PKK. He was also fined 208 million Turkish lira for the article.