In Istanbul, the journalist Deniz Yücel has been released after a year of preventive detention linked to an alleged accusation of propaganda in favor of terrorism.
Just a few hours later Friday, another court sentenced six journalists, writers and academics to life imprisonment, among them the renowned writer Ahmet Altan and his journalist brother Mehmet. It was a severe blow dealt to the already vanishing notion of the rule of law in Turkey, as in the span of just a few hours its limitations and shortcomings after a year and a half of post-coup repression were laid bare.
Yücel’s release had been awaited since Feb. 27, 2017, when he was arrested for his reporting from the southeastern part of Turkey and his interviews with Cemil Bayak, one of the leaders of the PKK, and the representatives of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). His release was highly likely especially after Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim’s words on Feb. 15. At a public hearing, Yildirim said he was hopeful that Yücel would be released soon—another twist in a story that has little to do with the judicial sphere and a lot to do with the political.
Out of the 12 months he spent in prison, Yücel spent over 10 months in solitary confinement. It took until the beginning of December for German Minister of Justice Heiko Maas to announce that there had been “progress,” and that Yücel would be transferred to a cell shared with another prisoner.
The most disturbing aspect of the whole affair is that until yesterday, the prosecution had never even filed formal charges. “Neither you nor I know the charges against him,” Yildirim commented in an interview. “If we acted instead of the judges and prosecutors, we would go against the rule of law.”
Those judges and prosecutors had endlessly postponed matters for a whole year, in compliance with indications that had a much more powerful effect than an actual judicial sentence—those coming from Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. “Yücel is a terrorist, not a journalist,” the president said, promising that he would never come out of prison.
Then came Yildirim’s words, and the cell door swung open—even if Yücel is now facing a (finally formalized) charge of terrorism for which he risks up to 18 years in prison. The fact that the side of the defense is now relieved by the mere fact that formal charges have finally been filed speaks volumes.
It is no coincidence that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has thanked the Turkish authorities for having “helped to speed up the legal procedures” of the trial. This says, in effect, that the Turkish government has given the green light after more than a year in which they had deliberately halted the procedures in their tracks.
Yücel’s release comes as the result of a political agreement between Turkey and Germany, against which Yücel himself spoke out while he was still in prison, saying he did not want “to be part of any dirty deal.” The terms of the deal were made clear by Gabriel himself, who said that the federal government was not willing to “give its approval to the many arms exports to Turkey. This situation will not change until the Yücel case reaches a solution.” In the end, Germany found the key to changing the obstinate attitude of Ankara in the military market.
But the other six did not benefit from any diplomatic maneuvers in their support, let alone the interests of the war industry. A few hours after the release of Yücel, the Altan brothers and the other four accused were sentenced by the 26th criminal court of Istanbul to the heaviest sentence possible: aggravated life imprisonment, which in Turkey is equivalent to solitary confinement, one hour of open air activities per day, ten minutes of telephone conversations and a visit by close family members every two weeks.
They were convicted of membership in Imam Gülen’s organization, considered by the Turkish government to have been behind the attempted coup in 2016, and of “subversion of the constitutional order.” They had supposedly attacked the Constitution in the newspapers in which they wrote and on the TV programs they took part in, as well as in recorded telephone conversations. According to their prosecutors, the media was able to support the coup by “subliminal messages”—an accusation that later disappeared from the official documents of the prosecution and was replaced by a less fantastical-sounding accusation that they knew about the coup.
These were the first sentences passed for the journalists jailed after July 15, 2016. Also convicted together with the Altan brothers were the well-known journalist Nazli Ilicak, Fevzi Yazıcı, Sükrü Tugrul Özsengül and Yakup Simsek.