"Cumhuriyet keep quiet". Can Erok/PA Images. All rights reserved.Today, in a crowded courtroom in Istanbul, a group of 17 employees of Cumhuriyet newspaper will stand trial, accused of a ludicrous range of charges related to terrorism, some facing up to 43 years in jail. Their real crime? Their journalism for a newspaper that fiercely maintains its independence, that refuses to shy away from criticising the Turkish authorities, even in the face of tremendous pressure, as the country has become the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists.
I witnessed this mockery of justice first-hand two weeks ago, when I travelled to Turkey to monitor the last session of the trial of the ‘Cumhuriyet 17’ on 11th September. Our determined group of observers gathered early that Monday morning, leaving the hotel shortly after 6:30 am to make the 100-kilometre journey outside Istanbul to Silivri, the site of a large prison campus that included a courtroom where the 17 journalists were to be tried that day, in the second hearing of their trial, which had started in July.
It is unclear why that hearing was set to take place so far away, when the previous session and the one to follow would be held in the city centre, but it seemed intended to discourage observers from attending. Regardless, observers were plentiful. Among our international group were activists, lawyers, journalists, diplomats, and politicians, including a Member of the European Parliament. Local supporters were also out in full force: family members, lawyers, NGO representatives, and opposition activists, many of whom did not get in as the courtroom was full.
Having read ‘We Are Arrested’ by Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief Can Dündar – and having seen the Royal Shakespeare Company’s sharing of the work describing the three months Dündar had spent detained in Silivri in 2015 – I felt intimately acquainted with the facility before we even arrived. I had gotten to know Dündar through my work with Reporters Without Borders, which had awarded Cumhuriyet its World Press Freedom Prize in 2015.
The whole day seemed to be a power-play; an exercise intended to remind all present exactly who was in charge.
Dündar was among the ‘Cumhuriyet 17’, and was being tried in absentia, as he had been forced to leave the country for safety after an attempt was made on his life. How disjointed it seemed now to sit in the courtroom in that same Silivri, in a country he could no longer return to, listening to an increasingly absurd series of accusations being made against him, as the prosecution worked to ‘prove’ that he had been taking orders from the movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, and attempting to topple the government simply by doing his job as then editor-in-chief of the daily.
The whole day seemed to be a power-play; an exercise intended to remind all present exactly who was in charge. “Foreign observers!” was a phrase repeatedly called out, and we dutifully queued up, and then moved, and moved again as we received conflicting information about whether, when, and under what circumstances, we would be allowed to enter.
It was eventually decided that we would be allowed in, and after some argument, the Turkish nationals accompanying us were let in too. We were not, however, permitted to use mobile phones or other devices in the courtroom – an apparently arbitrary restriction, as devices had been allowed in during the previous hearing.
The trial had been in session for over an hour by the time we were able to enter, and we were made to sit in the back, out of sight of the defendants, squeezing into an uncomfortable makeshift area with about half the number of seats needed for the size of our group. Apart from a few breaks, we would remain there for over 13 hours.
We passed the long day exchanging information about the case, helping each other with translation, speculating as to what might happen, and furtively sharing water, snacks, and cough sweets under the watchful eye of the many ‘Jandarma’ (Gendarmes) tasked with keeping us in order.
The highlights of our day were the few times the detainees – five of the 17 remain in detention – were taken to the toilets, led past our group to exit and then re-enter the courtroom. For a few brief moments, we could see them, and they could see us, and, we hoped, feel our support – one of the main purposes of our being there.
For a few brief moments, we could see them, and they could see us, and, we hoped, feel our support.
Procedurally, the hearing was maddening. Other journalists were compelled to testify against their will, describing nothing but the regular workings of a newspaper. Records of phone calls and SMS messages were examined that proved none of the allegations. The defence lawyers argued at length, deftly dismantling the case with practical and philosophical arguments alike.
After a final break, during which we waited in the car park, where tea and toasted sandwiches were sold, we returned at 10:30pm, to what must have been more than 100 armed troops – ‘Robocops’, as some put it – lining the walkway into the courtroom. There seemed to be no purpose to their presence, beyond sheer intimidation. That was the moment our local contacts said they knew there would be no releases that day; we had hoped the remaining five detainees would be allowed home.
The judges finally entered the courtroom around 45 minutes after they had told us all to return, and swiftly delivered the bad news: there would be no releases, as the interim decision was to keep the remaining five detainees in custody. The next hearing was set for today, 25 September, and the crowd disassembled to make the long journey back into Istanbul in the middle of the night – apart from the five detainees who would now spend at least another two weeks away from their loved ones, behind bars.
That day in Silivri, we bore witness. We observed gross irregularities and due process violations, the grotesque theatre being acted out before our eyes.
Deflated, I couldn’t help but wonder if our presence would make any difference at all. The sheer scale of the crackdown in Turkey – which is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index and currently has well over 100 journalists behind bars – is simply overwhelming. It sometimes feels impossible to find an effective way to help the remaining independent media and its embattled journalists.
But that day in Silivri, we bore witness. We observed gross irregularities and due process violations, and reported on the staggering injustice – the grotesque theatre being acted out before our eyes. We let the Turkish authorities know that the world is watching, and that we do not believe their unfounded allegations. Most importantly, we demonstrated solidarity with the accused journalists and showed them that we care, that we support them and will fight for justice in their cases.
Every last one of these journalists – the detained Cumhuriyet employees, and the many others unjustly jailed in Erdoğan’s Turkey – should be immediately and unconditionally released. All of the charges against them should be dropped. And this senseless, relentless crackdown, must be ceased. As we regularly tweet, #SaveTurkishJournalists, #FreeThemAll!