PEN International is deeply concerned by news that the İstanbul Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor is seeking an aggravated life sentence against Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül indictment. The indictment shared with their lawyers on 27 January seeks an aggravated life sentence, an ordinary life sentence and 30 years of imprisonment on charges including obtaining and revealing state secrets “for espionage purposes” and seeking to violently overthrow the Turkish government as well as aiding an “armed terrorist organisation.” The sentences sought are much heavier than expected. PEN International is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of both journalists and once again calls on the Turkish authorities to drop any other charges brought against Dündar for his legitimate expression as a journalist and political commentator.
Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, and his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül have been detained since their arrest on the evening of 26 November in connection with a criminal complaint filed against them by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in June 2015 over an earlier news story, when they published video and photographic evidence in Cumhuriyet of arms deliveries by the Turkish intelligence services to Islamist groups in Syria. The complaint accused Dündar of trying to manipulate justice with fabricated material and violating confidentiality. President Erdoğan personally warned Dündar afterwards that he would “pay a price” over the publication of the story.
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Writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker Can Dündar has become one of Turkey’s most prominent voices in a career spanning more than three decades. He is well known for his literary work as well as for a series of biographies and documentaries regarding key figures in Turkish history, including the founder of the republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the poet Nazım Hikmet and industrialist Vehbi Koç. His 2008 documentary on Atatürk sparked nationwide debate for its novel depiction of Turkey’s first president. Dündar was sacked from his position as a columnist for Milliyet following a series of articles critical of the government during the Gezi Park protests. He has since worked as a columnist for Cumhuriyet and BirGün and was appointed as Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief in February 2015. He was featured as a case study in PEN International’s report Surveillance, Secrecy and Self-Censorship: New Digital Freedom Challenges in Turkey for which he writing the preface at the time of his arrest. Can Dündar was a recipient of the 2016 PEN/Oxfam Novib award. Dilek Dündar, his wife, accepted the award on her husband’s behalf, reading a letter he had sent from prison.
“I’m writing this with a pen. I realize now I haven’t used a pen in years. Computers are forbidden here, as are typewriters. From the time I was awarded a red ribbon in primary school, writing has rewarded me. I paid my mortgage through journalism and it was in journalism I met my wife, who’s now reading this to you. Receiving this PEN award for freedom of expression from prison may seem like a dark comedy, although knowledge of all the other writers who’ve been in jail provides me a little comfort.”
Dündar is detained along with his colleague Erdem Gül under charges of “providing documents regarding the security of the state”, “political and military espionage”, “releasing secret documents” and “propaganda for a terrorist organization”. The case relates to a criminal complaint brought against the journalists´ daily Cumhuriyet by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan they published video and photographic materials on 29 May 2015 which alleged that Turkish intelligence services were delivering arms to Islamist groups in Syria, a long-denied fact. According to reports, the video, now removed from the website following a court order, showed Turkish gendarmerie officials in the southern province of Adana discovering large quantities of ammunition on civilian trucks belonging to Turkey’s National intelligence Agency in January 2014.
Following the publication of the video, Erdoğan was openly critical of Dündar, accusing him and the Cumhuriyet newspaper of engaging in espionage on live television. Dündar was also subjected to fierce attacks by the pro-government media in Turkey, who accused him of treason, espionage and complicity in an international complicity against Erdoğan and Turkey. Erdoğan’s lawyer reportedly demanded two life sentences for Dündar, accusing him of “forming an illegal organisation, crimes against the state, obtaining confidential information pertaining to national security, political and military espionage, unlawfully making confidential information public and attempting to influence a trial.”
On 1 June 2015, Dündar took to Twitter to defend the paper´s actions, stating: “We are journalists, not civil servants. Our duty is not to hide the dirty secrets of the state but to hold those accountable on behalf of the people.” President Erdoğan publicly said that Dündar “will pay for this”. At a time when international terrorism is at the centre of everyone’s concerns, it is unacceptable that political prosecutions are used to suppress investigative reporting and exposés. The arrest of these two journalists is the latest extreme to which political use of the Turkish judicial system has been taken. Many journalists have been detained on spurious charges of terrorist propaganda and insulting President Erdogan, while economic levers have been used to put growing pressure on the media, and several draconian laws further restricting freedom of expression have been passed.
This is the fourth case that Erdoğan has attempted to bring against Dündar in recent years. Dündar is also on trial for two articles he wrote in July 2014 in his column for the daily Cumhuriyet. The first of these articles, ‘Erdoğan’s soft underbelly‘, was published on 1 July 2014, and discussed the possible ramifications of Erdoğan’s presidency. The second article, ‘It is our right to read the police reports‘, was published on 18 July 2014, and criticised the controversial handling of a major police investigation into alleged government corruption (the investigation has since been dropped after a reshuffle of the prosecutors and police officers who initiated it). The public prosecutor is seeking a two year, four month prison sentence for defamation against President Erdoğan and a two year, two month prison sentence for defamation against his son Bilal Erdoğan. President Erdoğan had previously attempted to have Dündar tried for criminal defamation, but a May 2014 complaint was rejected by the public prosecutor. Dündar was also questioned on suspicion of presidential defamation on 26 February 2015 but no charges have yet been brought against him.
For further information please contact Ann Harrison at PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, Unit A, Koops Mill Mews, 162-164 Abbey Street, London SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338