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Kurdish journalist gets 14 years in Turkey, others await similar fate

Despite flimsy evidence and opaque proceedings, today was a terrible day in court for several Turkish journalists.
People hold placards prepared by Reporters Without Borders as they attend a demonstration organised for journalists detained in Turkey in front of the Berlin's main railway station, during the visit of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Berlin, Germany, September 28, 2018.  REUTERS/Christian Mang - RC1CDC76C5D0

Today was another dark day for the press in Turkey as assorted journalists appeared in court and were either convicted or denied acquittal on varying terror charges, thereby ensuring that the country retains its title as the world's biggest jailer of journalists for a third consecutive year.

Take Ziya Ataman, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish DIHA news agency, was slapped with 14 years and two months for alleged membership of a terrorist organization, shorthand in this case for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Including a lengthy pre-trial detention period, Ataman has already spent three years in a maximum security prison in the southeastern city of Van as his health steadily deteriorated, his lawyer Zelal Dogan told Al-Monitor.

The case fits a pattern of prosecution being used to intimidate numerous Kurdish and pro-Kurdish journalists working for outlets sympathetic to Kurds’ decades-long struggle for linguistic and political rights, and in some instances, to the PKK.

Ataman was arrested on suspicion of taking part in a rocket attack against Turkish security forces along side PKK rebels in the township of Beytusebap in 2015. The prosecution’s case rested on testimony provided by a witness identified in court solely by his initials for security reasons. The witness claimed to have seen Ataman take part in the attack, but he retracted his testimony last year. He did so again today in court, saying police officers extracted it from him under duress including torture.

The other piece of evidence was a notebook found on the person of a slain PKK rebel. The prosecution said it contained Ataman’s personal information including his date of birth, his home address and his mother’s name.

Dogan said, “It's by now obvious to all that Ataman had nothing to do with the rocket attack, so prosecutors decided to sentence him to 14 years on the grounds that he is a PKK member, all based on the entry in a notebook whose authenticity cannot be independently verified.”

Frederike Geerdink is a Dutch freelance journalist who spent a year embedded with the PKK in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan and authored a book called “This fire never dies: One year inside the PKK.” She said some of the militants she met did indeed carry notebooks and diaries. “One of them said she had written about me in her diary, so it's conceivable that others who encountered Ataman while he was carrying out his professional duties as a reporter met with him and recorded information about him.”

In a further twist, both the prosecutor and the judge who had ordered Ataman’s arrest were fired on the grounds that they were linked to Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher who is accused of engineering the failed 2016 coup to bloodily overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. DIHA was among the more than 130 media outlets that were banned in the aftermath of the coup.

Dogan said his legal team would appeal Ataman’s sentence at an appellate court before taking it to the Constitutional Court if need be. 

In a separate case being heard in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, a local court ruled to keep journalist Kibriye Evren behind bars. The reporter worked for the all-woman-staffed Kurdish Jin News agency, also shuttered in the wake of the attempted putsch, and like Ataman is accused of membership of the PKK.

She was arrested in October last year. Prosecutors are demanding that she be locked up for 20 years. Evren’s lawyers say the evidence against Evren includes social media posts and a photograph of her taking part in a picnic that supposedly proves that she was undergoing guerrilla training. The testimony of secret witnesses is also being taken into account.

Evren told lawyer Ulku Sahin of the Journalists Union of Turkey that she has found mice dropping and shards of glass in her prison meals and is unable to write letters or work on a planned book because stationery is not being delivered to the Diyarbakir prison where she is being held, the independent news outlet Bianet reported.

On Oct. 9, the day she was arrested, police raided Evren’s house, breaking down the door. They pinned her to the ground, stepped on her back and strip-searched her. 

Speaking at her seventh hearing today, Evren said, “The press is being shackled with this trial. If the press is shackled, democracy cannot function.”

Her trial will resume Nov. 12. The Media and Law Studies Association, a non-profit group providing pro bono services to jailed journalists and monitoring their cases, shared information on Twitter about 12 other Turkish journalists who appeared in courts across the country today.

The Turkish Journalists Union said in its annual report released in May that 74 Turkish journalists were sentenced to a total of 256 years over the yearlong period under review, which started April 2018. The body says at least 126 journalists are currently in jail.

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