Turkey’s government lacks evidence to support claims that Cumhuriyet journalists supported terrorists, so instead of bringing a failing case to trial, it is using arbitrary detention to punish them in retaliation for their work, Kadri Gürsel, one of those held, said in a letter from prison this week.

The letter from Gürsel – a member of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s Executive Board and chair of its Turkey National Committee – was read aloud Tuesday night at an event in Istanbul marking the anniversary of the 1993 assassination of investigative journalist Uğur Mumcu in a car bombing.

Gürsel and his Cumhuriyet colleagues are among some 151 journalists behind bars in Turkey, the world’s leading jailer of journalists. The vast majority of those held were detained as part of a sweeping government crackdown on independent media following a failed July coup attempt.

The crackdown was part of a larger purge in which hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey have been dismissed from their jobs or detained without due process under wide-ranging powers granted by a state of emergency that Turkey’s government continues to extend.

Gürsel, Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu and nine others from the newspaper are accused of supporting terrorists by subjecting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government to scrutiny and criticism.

All but one – investigative journalist Ahmet Şik, arrested in December – have spent nearly three months behind bars. But prosecutors have failed to present any indictment laying out evidence that might back up their claims or identifying the specific charges the journalists face.

Scores of other journalists imprisoned in Turkey face a similar situation. Turkey’s government argues that all of them committed crimes unrelated to their profession. However, the journalists have faced widespread denial of due process rights and Turkey’s Constitutional Court has refused to review their detention.

Gürsel argued that his arrest was ”part of a political operation” to silence and destroy Cumhuriyet and that a lack of evidence was behind the lengthy delay in a court case that might achieve that goal. He also noted that the government was effectively using its own failure to find anything linking the journalists to crimes as means to keep them locked up in punishment for their reporting.

“It is desired that we remain imprisoned and this is fundamentally representative of the period we are in,” he wrote.

The full text of Gürsel’s letter appears below.

In other Cumhuriyet-related news, a court in Istanbul fined reporter Canan Coşkun 12,600 Turkish Liras (approx. €3,045) yesterday over her February 2015 report alleging that a lottery to select homebuyers for a housing project in an Istanbul neighbourhood was rigged to allow top judicial officials with ties to the AKP to buy discounted residences from a public real estate company. Coşkun, who had faced up to 23 years in prison, stood by her story in a 2015 interview with IPI, saying she believed that the case against her was motivated by a desire for “revenge”.

Also this week, Turkish authorities blocked access to a news website founded by former Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar, who fled Turkey last year after he was sentenced to over five years in prison for publicising video of a border search of trucks owned by Turkey’s intelligence agency that revealed crates of ammunition and weapons bound for Syria, despite Turkish government denials that it was arming rebels in the country. Dundar, who left Turkey for Germany saying he feared he would not be given a fair appeal, unveiled his new website, ozguruz.org, earlier this week.


A letter from Cumhuriyet writers

I salute you all with love from B Block, Ward Number 25 of Silivri Prison Number 9. My ward-mates Turhan Günay and Musa Kart also send many greetings.

In these harsh times – as press freedom is under the utmost pressure, freedom of expression is forced out, the right to assembly and demonstration is almost eradicated – we are grateful for your efforts to keep the struggle for journalists and journalism alive.

If I weren’t imprisoned in the Silivri Prison today, I would also be standing together with you, with whom I have been fighting for press freedom for many years. Now, from where I stand, as a journalist I understand once again how significant and how important your struggle is.

We were arrested three months ago as part of a political operation aimed at silencing and destroying the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and we understand through the questions directed at us by the prosecutor’s office that we are accused of acting on behalf of a terrorist organization without being a member of it.

We really wonder how the attorney general will prove this accusation. We all know well that the allegations against us cannot be supported by evidence. If they were, then a judicial procedure against us could have been started by now to achieve the goal of this political operation. But time goes by, our imprisonment evolves into a punishment in itself and we are subjected to arbitrary detention. Oddly, we are guilty because there is no evidence against us. The judicial process is delayed due to the lack of any evidence. It is desired that we remain imprisoned and this is fundamentally representative of the period we are in.

Criminalising journalism and keeping journalists in prisons because of journalistic work that does not involve any criminal act have once again become one of the major problems for freedom of press and the rule of law in our country. As a journalist kept behind bars and an activist for freedom of the press, I salute you all and wish you success in your struggle.

Kadri Gürsel