Turkey’s justice system must stop persecuting RSF’s representative

Turkey’s justice system must stop persecuting RSF’s representative
Turkey’s justice system must stop persecuting RSF’s representative
RSF Rojnamegerên Sînornenas

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Turkish authorities to drop all charges against its Turkey representative, who is due to appear before an Istanbul court on 1 February for the 17th time in seven years on charges carrying a possible 14-year jail sentence. 

RSF representative Erol Onderoglu and his two co-defendants, the human rights defender Sebnem Korur Fincanciand the journalist and writer Ahmet Nesin, are being tried for participating in a May 2016 campaign of solidarity with Özgür Gündem (“Free Agenda”), a pro-Kurdish opposition newspaper that was being subjected to judicial harassment.

“What with 17 court appearances in seven years for a symbolic campaign in defence of media pluralism, this case against our Turkey representative is a tragic example of political meddling in judicial matters. We urge the Turkish justice system to end this persecution and drop all proceedings against Erol Onderoglu.

Christophe Deloire
RSF secretary-general

Criminalised support for a newspaper, quashed acquittal 

Onderoglu was one of around 50 well-known figures who took turns at symbolically being Özgür Gündem’s “editor for a day” in May 2016 because it was the victim of judicial persecution. On the basis of articles published in the newspaper during this solidarity campaign, they were accused of “terrorist propaganda,” “praising a crime or criminal” and “condoning a crime” – charges carrying a possible combined sentence of 14 and a half years in prison under Turkey’s penal code and Terrorism Law No. 3713.

Onderoglu and his co-defendants were initially acquitted in July 2019 at the end of a trial that had been repeatedly adjourned. But their acquittal was overturned in October 2020, one week after President Erdogan publicly accused one of Onderoglu’s co-defendants, Fincanci, of being a “terrorist.” 

Their acquittal was quashed by an Istanbul appeal court, which rejected the argument that their editorial roles were purely symbolic and said they should have been tried at the same time as Özgür Gündem editor Inan Kizilkaya. As a result, an Istanbul assizes court began retrying them on the same charges in February 2021.

Referring to their cases, among others, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said in June 2021: “I am greatly concerned that anti-terrorism laws are being used extensively to silence Turkish human rights defenders and disrupt their legitimate work defending human rights.”

Ruling party judge’s dismissal rejected 

In April 2022, Onderoglu’s lawyers requested the dismissal of Murat Bircan, the judge presiding the 13th chamber of the Istanbul assizes court, on the grounds of his very close ties with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But the court rejected the request. 

It was the 13th chamber that, on 25 April 2022, sentenced the philanthropist Osman Kavala to life imprisonment and seven environmentalists to 18 years in prison on charges of “seeking to destabilise the government” in connection with their role in a campaign to protect Istanbul’s Gezi Park, near Taksim Square, from urban development projects. 

The court has been awaiting a deposition from one of Onderoglu’s co-defendants, Nesin, who now resides in France, and for witness testimony from Kizilkaya, Özgür Gündem’s editor. The prosecutor could nonetheless finally begin presenting his case at tomorrow’s hearing. 

Both a journalist and staunch press freedom advocate, Onderoglu has been RSF’s representative in Turkey since 1996. As a result of his diligence and integrity, he is well known both in Turkey and all over the world and has received several international awards.