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29 February

Dündar and Gül

In Turkey, every silver lining has its black cloud.

As P24 we can only stand on the desk and cheer at last week’s news from the Constitutional Court. By an overwhelming majority of twelve votes to three, the judges called for the release of Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper and his Ankara bureau chief Ekrem Gül.  Unfortunately, this glimpse of a silver lining does not prevent us from seeing we are in the middle of a raging storm.
It is impossible to underestimate the potential importance of the court’s verdict.  Dündar and Gül pair had been charged with “espionage, threatening state security and supporting an armed terrorist organisation.” The accusations related to a front-page story in which Cumhuriyet put together pieces of information, most of which happened to be the public realm, that national intelligence was running arms and munitions to the Syrian border. The highest court in the land ruled that this was nonsense, in effect declared the pair guilty of nothing more heinous than embarrassing the government through a legitimate act of journalism.
And accordingly, last Friday (26 February), after 92 days of pre-trial detention, Dündar and Gül were set free. 
On the surface this would appear to be a giant step in a return both to the rule of law in Turkey and to common sense. The wording of the verdict makes explicit that the two men’s basic rights had been violated—not just of the right to liberty but (as Article 26 of the Constitution guarantees) the right to make their opinions known and to work in a free press, (Article 28) unrestrained. 
In essence, the ruling is not just that the men were held unfairly but that their case would never have been brought had the public prosecutor first consulted the Turkish Constitution. It makes a nonsense of the official claim that no one in Turkey is in prison simply for what they write. The judgement is not the work of some goodie-two shoes NGO with office suites in Paris or New York, which ultranationalists labouring in the bowels of the government supported media can dismiss out of hand. It is the opinion of the highest judicial authority in the land.
It sets a valuable precedent – that what is true for Dündar and Gül should be applicable to over a score of other cases where defendants are incarcerated for long periods on grounds that appear to have more to do with political vendetta than public good. One of them, Mehmet Baransu, marks his first year in pre-trial incarceration and still does not know with what he is being charged.
Yet we have all too painful evidence that the vendetta will not just continue but gather momentum.
Even as the recently Dündar and Gül were being interviewed IMC, a dissident television channel, the screen suddenly went blank after the Turkish Satellite Communications Company (Türksat) pulled the plug. Shortly after their release, P24’s lawyer went to visit Hayri Tunç, a reporter for Jiyan website (focussed on Kurdish events) but was not allowed to hand over a small selection of books, that included Mahatma Ghandi’s autobiography.
The real concern is that the Turkish president regards the Dündar and Gül decision not in terms of case law but as a challenge to his authority. Last November, Tayyip Erdoğan threatened Dündar, saying he would “pay a heavy price” – a comment which is widely regarded as having instigated the detentions  and charges that carry  penalties of life imprisonment. Then, following, the pair’s release, the president declared he would not abide by a constitution he is sworn to uphold.  “I Neither Obey Nor Respect Constitutional Court’s Ruling,” is the banner headline on the presidential website.
These are more than the words of a bad loser. They plunge Turkey into legal limbo. Our satisfaction in justice being seen to be done, is tempered by an acute sense that arbitrary abuse of the legal system may, like some malodorous basement damp, still be on the rise. 
However, for the moment we share in in the pleasure of the release of colleagues who should have spent the last three months at their desks or with their families rather than behind bars. And we commend both Dündar and Gül who in their public statements saw their own fight as part of greater war. The palpable absurdity of the charges against as well as their dignity (and sense of humour) under fire has provided a rallying cry for different sectors of the press to put aside their ideological squabbles and unite under a common cause.
And we commend a verdict that makes a case for the separation of powers, points to the dangers of when these become blurred and which defends a free and independent press able to distinguish between the two.

Tags: p24 , can dündar , erdem gül , cumhuriyet ,


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