(CN) — The arrests and lengthy jailing of journalists with a left-wing Istanbul newspaper critical of the Turkish regime were a violation of their freedom of expression and right to liberty, Europe’s human rights court ruled Tuesday.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, ruled that Turkish authorities violated the European Convention on Human Rights when they arrested 10 people working for Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest independent newspaper and a voice for secularist opposition. They were accused of disseminating propaganda for Kurdish militant groups and supporters of a failed coup attempt.
Among those arrested was Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief, and Akin Atalay, the chief executive. The Strasbourg court’s ruling concerns 10 people arrested at the newspaper, but in all 18 members were arrested. Besides journalists and managers, a cartoonist, accountants and lawyers were also arrested.
The newspaper’s staff was charged with terrorism-related crimes and accused of promoting and disseminating propaganda for Kurdish militants and supporters of a failed coup attempt to remove Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
After the failed coup on July 15, 2016, Erdogan ordered a state of emergency and oversaw a severe crackdown on people his government perceives as threats.
Erdogan accuses American-based preacher Fethullah Gulen of being the mastermind behind the coup. Erdogan and Gulen were once allies, but their friendship broke apart in 2013 during a corruption investigation that threatened to topple the government. Erdogan now accuses Gulen of seeking to create a “parallel state” in Turkey. Gulen has denied involvement in the coup attempt, in which about 250 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded.
About 80,000 people have been jailed following the coup attempt and about 150,000 civil servants, military personnel and others have been fired or suspended from their jobs. Also, more than 20,000 teachers have had their licenses revoked and scores of schools, universities, trade unions, media outlets, foundations and even hospitals have been closed.
Amid that crackdown, authorities raided the homes of Cumhuriyet staff and arrested them. They were then kept in detention for months after prosecutors and magistrates charged that they might flee Turkey if released and destroy evidence.
Since the coup attempt, 231 journalists have been arrested in Turkey and more than 150 remain in prison, according to the Strasbourg court ruling. Citing a special rapporteur’s report, the court said the “evidence produced against them was very vague or non-existent.”
The crimes Cumhuriyet allegedly committed included publishing interviews with Gulen and his family and with leaders of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, an outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group. The newspaper also was attacked for printing articles critical of Erdogan’s government, including one reporting that Turkish forces sent a secret shipment of weapons and ammunition to the jihadist organization Ansar Al-Islam in Syria, a group affiliated with al-Qaida.
In its ruling, the European Court of Human Rights said the arrests were based on mere suspicion and were not backed up with strong evidence. The court also characterized the articles the newspapers ran as falling “within the scope of public debate on facts and events that were already known” and “did not support or advocate the use of violence in the political sphere,” according to a court news release.
The court said the newspaper showed no intent “to contribute to the illegal objectives of terrorist organizations, namely to use violence and terror for political ends.”
Their arrests and pretrial detentions infringed on their freedom of expression and right to liberty, the court said.
“The judicial authorities concerned created confusion between, on the one hand, criticism of the government in the context of public debate and, on the other hand, the pretexts used by the terrorist organizations to justify their violent acts,” the ruling states. “They characterized criticism levelled legitimately at the authorities in the context of public debate, in accordance with freedom of expression and press freedom, as assisting terrorist organizations and/or disseminating propaganda in favor of those organizations.”
After their arrests, the Cumhuriyet journalists and managers were indicted in April 2017 by public prosecutors in Istanbul. Eight of those accused were convicted by the Istanbul Assize Court and their appeals are pending at the criminal divisions of the Court of Cassation, the ruling said. They were released from prison pending trial and the conclusion of their appeals. Two of the accused were acquitted.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.