(CN) — Europe’s human rights court on Tuesday lambasted Turkish authorities for violating a prominent investigative journalist’s rights when they tossed him in prison for months during a crackdown on people perceived to be enemies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A panel of seven judges with the European Court of Human Rights ruled Turkish authorities had no good reason in 2016 to arrest Ahmet Sik, who was at the time writing for the left-wing secular Cumhuriyet newspaper in Istanbul, and then keep him in pretrial detention for 13 months on charges that he was cooperating with enemies of the government.
Sik’s case was one of four rulings related to Turkey issued by the Strasbourg-based court on Tuesday that together provided a window into an era of turbulent change for Turkey, one marked by rapid modernization, corruption, political repression and powerful domestic clashes.
Two of the other cases involved corruption, a widespread problem in Turkey and one that many say has only gotten worse under the authoritarian regime of Erdogan, whose leadership has also coincided with a period of modernization and economic growth in Turkey. In recent years, though, Turkey’s economy has stalled and the Turkish lira is going through a major fall in value. The fourth case involved landowners challenging state seizure of plots of land they inherited from a squatter relative.
Sik’s case sheds a harsh light on Erdogan’s repressive political machine, which is waging a relentless campaign against those deemed to oppose his pro-Islamist nationalist party’s dominance over Turkey. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have cemented their control over Turkey since Erdogan became prime minister in 2002, though cracks in his popular support are appearing with recent electoral losses, including the mayorship of Istanbul.
Sik was among numerous managers and journalists at the Cumhuriyet newspaper who were arrested and charged with crimes in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The newspaper was accused of seeking to aid the coup attempt, which Erdogan said was orchestrated by the American-based preacher Fethullah Gulen. In fact, Sik had done extensive reporting to expose the Gulen movement and written a book alleging it had infiltrated Turkey’s police. The book was banned in Turkey.
Sik and the newspaper also were accused of being propaganda mouthpieces for outlawed militant pro-Kurdish forces, the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, and a banned militant Marxist group, the People’s Revolutionary Liberation Party/Front.
Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Turkish authorities over their actions against the newspaper, the country’s oldest independent newspaper and a voice for the secularist opposition.
Prior to Erdogan’s rise to power, Turkey had a strong tradition of separating religion and government, a core principle in the formation of the Turkish republic under Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. Erdogan, an Islamist leader, has eroded that secular tradition. The 2016 coup attempt by the military sought to restore Ataturk’s secular and democratic underpinnings to Turkey.
Sik was arrested on Dec. 29, 2016, at his home by Istanbul police and accused of disseminating propaganda through his newspaper articles and posts on Twitter and advocating violence. Prosecutors also accused Sik of denigrating the Turkish state by alleging it was supporting terrorist groups.
Sik denied the charges against him and said his writings were the work of journalism.
It wasn’t the first time Sik’s sharp criticism of Turkey’s government had landed him in jail. His writings on human rights abuses and government actions had brought him into conflict numerous times with Turkish authorities and he fled the country in 2009 for fear of reprisal for critical articles about officials, according to a case file on him at PEN, an international group that supports writers.
He was arrested in 2011 and accused of belonging to an alleged clandestine secular nationalist organization planning to overthrow Erdogan.
Trials against him are ongoing, PEN said. He was convicted on the charges brought against him after his arrest in 2016 and sentenced to seven years and six months imprisonment, though he is free pending his appeal. In the meantime, he has also entered politics, winning a seat in Turkey’s parliament in 2018, though he resigned in May after he became disillusioned with the People’s Democratic Party, an opposition left-wing party.
In his articles, Sik called Turkish agents “murderers, mafiosi, violent [individuals]” regarding Turkey’s war with Kurdish separatists, according to the court ruling. Sik also alleged government forces were “setting off bombs and inciting others to war,” the ruling said.
The journalist came under suspicion for interviewing Kurdish militant leaders in 2015. In one article, Sik wrote about their demands that Turkish authorities free their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, before they would lay down their arms and enter peace talks. Erdogan is opposed to the creation of a Kurdish state. Turkey and Kurdish separatists have been in conflict since 1984.
The Strasbourg court found that Sik’s interview with the Kurdish militants “would have been regarded as newsworthy anywhere in the world, and by publishing it he had simply been practicing his profession as a journalist.”
Sik also was under suspicion for speaking by telephone in 2015 with two members of the banned People’s Revolutionary Liberation Party/Front moments before they were killed in a shootout with police after taking a prosecutor hostage at an Istanbul court building. The prosecutor was killed too.
The militants took the prosecutor hostage and demanded police officers confess on live television to being involved in the death of a 15-year-old boy who died during large-scale protests against Erdogan and a development project he was pushing in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The boy died in the hospital after being struck on the head by a police teargas canister.
The court said that the interview “had news or information value” and cannot be read as having “as its purpose the propagation of the ideas of left-wing extremists, but on the contrary sought to expose to the public the violent attitudes of these young militants.”
Sik also was prosecuted for articles alleging Turkish intelligence services were involved in a car bombing in 2013 in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the border with Syria, and shipped weapons to Ansar Al-Islam, a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaida.
Sik took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2017, claiming, among other things, that he had been arbitrarily detained and that his right to freedom of expression was violated.
The court said Sik’s articles and posts contributed to “various public debates on matters of general interest” and involved him providing his assessment “of current political developments, his analysis and criticism of various actions taken by government bodies, and his point of view on the legality and compatibility with the rule of law of the administrative and judicial measures taken against the alleged members or sympathizers of the illegal organizations.”
The court added that “those articles and posts did not contain any incitement to commit terrorist offences, did not condone the use of violence and did not encourage insurrection against the legitimate authorities.”
It added that the freedom of political debate “at the very core of the concept of a democratic society” includes permitting the expression of views by banned groups as long it is not accompanied by public incitement to commit violence.
“The public has the right to be informed of the different ways of viewing a situation of conflict or tension,” the ruling said. “In that regard the authorities must, whatever their reservations, allow all parties to express their point of view.”
Judgments from the Strasbourg court are supposed to force judicial authorities to take corrective action. Turkey is a member of the court and it is supposed to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights, but it and other nations repeatedly do not comply with its rulings. The Strasbourg court does not have enforcement powers and the fines it metes out are small.
Also Tuesday, the human rights court ruled in two cases brought by businessmen claiming their rights were violated by Turkish judicial authorities.
One case was brought by Bahaettin Uzan, a member of a Turkish family that was one of the country’s richest and most powerful political forces before the clan was accused of wide-ranging corruption in 2002.
The Uzan family owned a plethora of businesses and media outlets and one of its members, Cem Uzan, was preparing to run for the presidency when authorities raided the family business and accused it of corruption. The Uzan family owned banks, financial companies and media and telecommunications businesses.
Turkish authorities called it the “biggest banking corruption incident in the country’s history,” the court noted. The family was accused of developing a software program that diverted huge amounts of money from a bank belonging to the group.
Bahaettin Uzan asked the European Court of Human Rights to find that his right to an independent and impartial trial was violated after Turkish authorities transferred his case to a special court devised to handle white-collar crimes. The Strasbourg court found that there was no violation.
Bahaettin Uzan served as a vice chairman of the allegedly fraudulent software company. He was arrested in September 2003. His case was transferred to a special Istanbul court dealing with bank crimes. He was convicted of embezzlement in 2006 and given a 17-year sentence. He denied any wrongdoing and claimed the case against him was politically motivated. He alleged the new special court, the Istanbul 8th Assize Court, had been established only after the minister of justice, a political rival of the Uzan family, proposed creating it.
The Strasbourg court also ruled in a case involving Dursun Ali Kurban, a Turkish businessman who lost a construction contract he’d won for work at a hydropower plant after a previous indictment against him came to light.
Kurban’s case involves a flood protection project for a hydropower plant in Trabzon. He and a business partner won a $3.8 million contract for the work in October 2006.
After work began on the project, the governor’s office in Trabzon was notified that Kurban had been indicted in connection with public procurement offenses. That in turn triggered regional authorities in Trabzon to rescind Kurban’s contract because individuals under indictment for public procurement crimes were not allowed to participate in public tenders. Besides canceling the contract, Trabzon authorities retained guarantees Kurban and his business partner had paid to obtain the contract.
In March 2006, Kurban was questioned by police on suspicion of being involved in a criminal ring rigging public bids. He was indicted in July 2006 on charges of “organized crime in relation to the corruption of six public procurement processes,” the ruling said.
Kurban argued that canceling the contract and keeping the guarantee he’d paid before his case had been tried was a violation of the presumption of innocence principle. He also argued that when he sought the hydropower plant bid he was not aware that he had been indicted. The Strasbourg court disagreed and found no violation of his right to the presumption of innocence.
However, the court found that the Turkish authorities violated Kurban’s right to “peaceful enjoyment of his possessions” and said seizing the sum he paid as a guarantee for the contract was a violation. He had previously lost his legal fight in Turkish courts.
The European Court of Human Rights also ruled Tuesday in a case involving a dispute over land plots seized by the Turkish state. In that case, the court found that the government unlawfully seized the land. The decision is only available in French.
The case involved nine people who lost ownership of land plots they inherited in Diyarbakir. Turkish authorities dismissed their claims to several plots of land, which a dead relative had obtained in 1951 based on adverse possession – in other words, as a squatter. The government claimed their rights to the land were annulled by the fact that some of it was now flooded as part of a dam project and that it was not fit for farming.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.