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03 February

Trial of journalists charged with espionage starts in Hatay

Dihaber reporters Alayumat and Akman face up to 45 years in prison. The court ruled to continue Alayumat’s detention until the next hearing april 25

A trial against two journalists of the Dicle Medya News Agency (Dihaber), an outlet closed by decree on August 2017, accused of “procuring confidential state documents for political or military espionage purposes” and “membership in a terrorist organization”, has begun in Hatay province on February 2.
Erdoğan Alayumat, a local reporter for Dihaber based in Hatay, has been in custody for more than six months. He and his younger colleague Nuri Akman, who was released on judicial control terms, face up to 45 years in prison.

Both presented their defense statement to the court during the first hearing held at the Hatay 2nd Heavy Penal Court. The hearing was monitored by P24 and Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGS). The court eventually ruled for the continuation of Alayumat’s detention and the judicial control provisions on Akman, adjourning the trial to April 25.
 
Indictment solely based on journalistic works

Alayumat and Akman told the court that the indictment was solely based on their news reports and photographs, some of which weren’t even taken by them. Presenting his defense statement from the Samsun Bafra Prison facility via the tele-conferencing system SEGBIS, Alayumat said the indictment had not provided any concrete evidence despite the gravity of the accusations.

Speaking on the “espionage” and “terrorist organization membership” accusations, “a proof is needed to show when, to whom and how I sent this information,” Alayumat said. Working in a province bordering Syria, which had been directly affected from the nearby war, Alayumat’s coverage of allegations regarding supplies sent to Islamist groups by the Turkish intelligence agency MİT and the construction of a wall on the Syrian border had been pinpointed by prosecutors.
Alayumat rejected that his news reports had the aim of espionage. He explained that as a local reporter working in the province, he covered those stories for being relevant and newsworthy. “I work as a journalist and report on anything I consider that has a news value. I am also compensated per piece by the news agency,” he told the court, adding that his coverage wasn’t merely limited to sensitive political issues. “I also cover topics such as ecology or social news. I have done hundreds of news reports in the Çukurova region. If you look to those, it would be understood that all of them are news reports and what I have done is journalism.”
 
Factual mistake on Alayumat’s education

Alayumat also complained about a serious factual mistake in the indictment. The indictment alleged that he had joined “the youth structures of a terrorist organization” during his university years, he said, indicating that this would have been impossible. “I have left Primary School in 4th grade. I had to support my family. I finished Primary School years later, with distance learning. As I didn’t have any university life, this statement is wrong,” he said.
His colleague Akman who was present in the courtroom said he had been studying law at the Dicle University in Diyarbakır and working for the agency at the same time. When he asked his management for a formula allowing him to work and travel, they proposed to send him to work with Alayumat in Hatay for a week, he said. During his time in Hatay, Akman worked on a report on the effects of the war in Syria interviewing people living along the border, but the story was eventually dropped by his editors.
 
Police beating during detention

After Akman’s story was rejected, Alayumat proposed to travel to Islahiye, a district of the neighboring Gaziantep province, to cover another story, Akman told the court. Both were detained by the police a few hours after their arrival in the town on July 23.

Akman said he had been subject to a very violent treatment by police officers. His protest over the improper detention procedure and insistence to call his lawyer were answered with beatings, he said. “Nine-ten police officers battered me,” Akman said, adding that officers also forced him to assume responsibility for killing two policemen in Hatay. “When I told them that I was an antimilitarist and against killing people, I was again subject to physical violence,” he said. Akman was brought to a doctor for a medical report but brought back without being able to see him, he said.

Alayumat had also been subject to ill-treatment and torture after he was sent to a prison in Tarsus, in the Mediterranean province of Mersin. Following his lawyer’s complaint, Alayumat was moved to a prison in Samsun Bafra, on the northern Black Sea coast.

Akman stated that even photographs he took during a press trip organized by the Prime Ministry to the Tomb of Süleyman Şah were used as proof against him. He participated in the trip alongside some 50 reporters from mainstream outlets, such as the Anadolu Agency, Akman said. He also argued that another case against him over his social media posts, which led him to being detained for six months, was used to create a negative perception on him. “I am studying law and have watched more than a hundred trials while working as a court reporter in Diyarbakır. I have also been careful not to take risk after already being detained for six months. I am appalled at the gravity of the accusations. I don’t accept them,” he said.
 
‘’Prosecution feels no obligation to prove its claims’’

A lawyer representing the two journalists said the police was disturbed by journalists’ reporting and used photographs and articles as proof after failing to find anything substantial.

Stressing that journalists’ work devices had been seized by police officers, the lawyer Tugay Bek said: “If there is some sort of an espionage, there should be a recipient of information. Emails, whatsapp messages are in police’s possession but there is no proof to whom [this information] were sent. [The prosecution] feels no obligation to prove its claims.”

Bek also argued that the prosecution aimed to create a certain perception about journalists, such as in its referring to Alayumat’s “leftist friends”. “If defendants are leftists, does it mean that the prosecution is right-wing? These are not legal terms,” he said. 

‘’Claims in Alayumat’s stories not hidden anymore’’

Speaking to P24, Bek explained that the claims brought forward in Alayumat’s stories neither were secrets nor refuted by the government anymore. “Erdoğan Alayumat’s detention is like a precursor of the situation we are in today. Alayumat aimed to do stories on how some of the groups [fighting in Syria] were trained and provided logistic supply by the National Intelligence Organization [MİT]. These news stories were considered as terrorism and espionage. Yet these claims that were once rumors and hard to assess are admitted to be true today; the critics are even being told ‘What is there to be against about’. Erdoğan’s reporting is about whether there was such a militia power. We see today that there is,” Bek said.

Stressing that the entire indictment was built on news reports and photographs, Bek argued that this was yet another move in the battle for silencing alternative media. “The files contain photographs found in Alayumat’s camera and computer, some of which he took himself and others he downloaded from the Internet. However, it is possible to find many more photographs in the Internet similar to those which are considered confidential.”

The trial should be dismissed, Bek said, but warned that in a province considered “a front zone” following the launch of an operation in Syria by Turkey’s military in January, the court may feel the need to take a political decision.

Allegations regarding the supply to Islamist groups fighting in Syria have met with a very strong reaction by the government, which considered the reporting on those claims as a “disclosure of state secrets”. The former editor-in-chief of Daily Cumhuriyet, Can Dündar, was imprisoned pending trial for publishing a story on weapons found on trucks belonging to the intelligence agency that were bound to Syria. Two of these strucks were stopped in Adana and other two in Hatay in January 2015.

Dündar has been living in Germany since his release by a Constitutional Court decision, but faces an arrest warrant in Turkey. Former journalist and main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) lawmaker Enis Berberoğlu was sentenced to 25 years in prison for purportedly providing Cumhuriyet with a video that showed the weapons found in the trucks. The sentence was quashed by an appeal court, but Berberoğlu remains in detention as a retrial began in December 2017. 

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