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05 September

Journalists’ trial for exposing state secrets begins

Court rules against Mehmet Baransu’s appeal for release from prison

 
The first hearing of the trial regarding the publication of military documents titled the Egemen Operation Plan -- although more commonly known by the public to be concerning documents published by Taraf in 2010 about the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) Coup Plan --  was heard on Sept. 2 at the Istanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan. Journalist Mehmet Baransu, who was placed under arrest on 2 March, 2015 at the start of the investigation, as well as journalists Ahmet Altan, Yasemin Çongar and Yıldıray Oğur, for whom the prosecutor demands 52 years and six months in prison, attended the trial. A fifth journalist, Tuncay Opçin, who has suspect-at-large status, was not in attendance on the day of the first hearing.
 
The indictment, which forms the basis for the trial was accepted by the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court on June 21. It was drafted by Prosecutor Faruk Söker from the Terror and Organized Crime Bureau of the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office. The prosecutor demands 52 years and six months of imprisonment each for Ahmet Altan, Yasemin Çongar and Yıldıray Oğur under Turkish Criminal Code Articles 326, 327 and 329 which criminalize “Destroying, using outside the intended purpose, stealing through deceit documents relating to state security; acquiring documents relating to state security and exposing documents that should remain classified for the security and political interests of the state.” The prosecutor demanded more than 70 years in prison for Mehmet Baransu and Tuncay Opçin on the  additional charges of “membership and leadership of a terror organization.”
 
International observers at the trial
 
A large number of representatives from various international human rights organizations and journalism associations as well as diplomats observed the first session of the trial, including Article 19, Index On Censorship, English PEN, the European Federation of Journalists, the Norwegian Press Association, the Norwegian Journalists Union, PEN Germany, My Media, the Guardian Foundation, PEN International, Wales PEN Cymru and diplomatic envoys from Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, the USA and the Czech Republic.
 
In the first session of the Sept. 2  hearing, a summary of the 267-page indictment prepared by Prosecutor Söker was read out to the defendants. Defense lawyers voiced several objections against the summary of the indictment, as well as against the actual text of the indictment accepted by the court. The lawyers noted that although it is mentioned nowhere in the indictment, the summary read out in court alleged that Yasemin Çongar had met with suspect Tuncay Opçin on five or six occasions. Bülent Dalkıran, the presiding judge, admitted that this was a mistake, saying it must have been result of a “cut and paste error.” The panel of judges accepted a request from defense to continue the hearing on video record.
 
Veysel Ok, lawyer for Altan and Çongar, asked the court to explain the discrepancies between the indictment he and his clients officially received from the court and the one uploaded on the judiciary’s online database. Stating that the indictment contained an excessive number of errors and violations of several legal principles, Ok demanded the acquittal of his clients without testifying as per the relevant articles of the Turkish Criminal Procedure Code (CMK).
 
Hüseyin Ersöz, the lawyer representing the complainants – retired military officers Kadir Sağdıç, Hakan Büyük, Nedim Ulusan, Çetin Doğan, Ahmet Bertan Nogaylaroğlu and Ahmet Zeki Üçok – asked to be granted intervener status in the trial. The panel of judges ruled against Ok’s request for immediate acquittal of his clients, while they accepted Ersöz’s request to intervene.
 
‘I have never seen the Egemen Operation Plan’

Journalist Çongar, who started her defense statement criticizing the contradictions in the indictment and its summary, said she had been tried for her writings, translations and news reports many times over the past three decades. She continued: “That I am before a court today, facing trial not over something I wrote or published, but for something I’ve never done in any way, is a first in thirty years.” In her defense statement, Çongar said, “In 2010, I did not acquire the Egemen Operation Plan, said to be a military operation plan against Greece, which was destroyed on Dec. 18, 2008 as it was replaced with an updated action plan according to a formal statement from the Intelligence Department of the General Chief of Staff, nor did I act as an intermediary in its acquisition, encourage its acquisition, store, damage or destroy it. I have never seen the Egemen Operation Plan, or touched or examined it at any point. I had no knowledge of its name and scope until the day I testified to a prosecutor ahead of this trial.” Stating that no document relating to the Egemen Operation Plan had ever been published by Taraf, she demanded that the court drop the case, saying: You can certainly appreciate the fact that I couldn’t have possibly destroyed documents that I’ve never seen or touched. At the time, I never participated in destroying any such documents by way of tearing apart, burning or cutting through a paper-shredder. I haven’t heard of or witnessed anybody at the Taraf newspaper engaging in such an act.”
 
‘Drop this case and try those who devised the coup plot’

Referring to the many problems in the indictment and its summary version, Altan said the trial’s start lacked the meticulousness called for by the law. “That was not a summary but a new indictment. You can’t have two indictments in a court of law. We are on trial for exposing a group of officers who plotted to overthrown the government, not because we attempted to overthrow the government.”
 
Altan recalled that a legal opinion submitted to the court by his lawyer, written by Sami Selçuk, the Honorary Chairman of the Supreme Court of Appeals, who is currently a lecturer at Bilkent University Law School, also emphasized that the indictment did not offer any evidence suggesting that the crimes ever occurred. Selçuk also noted that Can Dündar being named as a suspect in a paragraph in the indictment, which strongly suggests that it was lifted from another indictment, was “an unforgivable error.”
 
In his defense statement, Altan said that the accusations leveled against him were too vague and therefore could potentially hurt the chances of a fair trial for all the defendants. He stated that if he was being tried for publishing the Balyoz Coup Plot, he said the news report about the preparation of some military officers to carry out a coup d’état could not be treated as a “state secret.” He said: “Plans that were devised to overthrow the constitutional order cannot possibly be state secrets. Plotting to overthrow the government is a crime and bringing such a crime to light is a duty for journalists, as this is directly in benefit of the public. If you bring us here today for having published those documents, this means that you acknowledge the authenticity of the coup plot, which means you should drop this case immediately and start trying those who have devised that plot. Are you accusing us of ‘revealing state secrets’ because we published the Balyoz Coup Plan? What is the certain and clear answer to that question?” Altan also stated that the Egemen Operation Plan, the main subject of the trial, had never been published in Taraf, as established by previous decisions of the Constitutional Court. “Are you accusing us of having acquired and publicly disclosed these plans collectively titled the Egemen Plan?
If this is indeed so, this case should be dropped this very session. Because we haven’t seen, published or destroyed those plans,” he told the court. Altan demanded that the case be dismissed by the court, saying it has no legal or logical basis.
 
Baransu and Oğur’s statements
 
Yıldıray Oğur, who denied all charges against him in his defense statement, said that the documents that were part of the Sledgehammer Coup Plot were strongly suggestive of a plot to overthrow the government, as they made references to actual people and places, which he said is unheard of in any intellectual strategy exercise. “There is no indication in the indictment that I was the one who acquired these documents. I didn’t see anything but four CD-ROMs that were in the hands of our reporter. I don’t know who acquired them or how.” He also recalled the Constitutional Court decision, which established that the Egemen Operation Plan was never published in Taraf. “It is impossible for me to expose these plans that I have never seen or published.” He further said, “Bad journalism shouldn’t be tried at a criminal court with the prosecutor asking for 52 years in prison.”
 
The court prosecutor, İlkay Özcan, demanded that Baransu remains under arrest; a request the court accepted.
 
During the session, journalist Baransu said that prosecutors filing various charges against him had never summoned him to hear his side, adding that his former spouse, Esra Konur, had slandered him in the indictment and demanded that Konur’s accusations are investigated thoroughly. Baransu also demanded extra time and more access to his lawyer to prepare his defense statement – a request which the judge granted.
 
The court ruled to send Baransu back to prison and exempted suspects Yasemin Çongar, Ahmet Altan and Yıldıray Oğur from attending future sessions. The trial was adjourned until Nov. 23, 2016.

  
 

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