Turkish court sentences pro-Kurdish newspaper employees on terrorism charges

The 23rd High Criminal Court of Istanbul on Monday sentenced four former employees of the pro-Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem, shut down by a Turkish court order in 2016, to imprisonment on terrorism charges.

Eren Keskin, a Turkish lawyer prominent in human rights spheres, received a six-year sentence for “membership of an armed terrorist organization.” Özgür Gündem’s former publisher, Kemal Sancılı, and former managing editor, İnan Kızılkaya, received sentences of six years and three months on the same charge. Özgür Gündem’s Editor-in-Chief, Zana Kaya, was sentenced to two years and one month for “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.”

Özgür Gündem translates to “Free Agenda.” During its operation, its journalists covered the conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces, the country’s military, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KWP), a militant political organization. The coverage had a wide impact given that the newspaper’s circulation topped 100,000. Such coverage saw Özgür Gündem face accusations that it produced KWP propaganda, even when it publicly criticized the KWP, and saw it subjected to significant attention from the Turkish government, which eventually shut the newspaper down and took action against its employees.

The sentences have been widely condemned. Milena Buyum, the Turkey Campaigner at Amnesty International stated:

[A] human rights lawyer who has spoken out against injustice for more than three decades, has become the victim of injustice herself. Eren Keskin has dedicated her life to defending the rights of women, prisoners and fought for justice for the families of the disappeared. This verdict is yet another shocking example of anti-terrorism laws being used to criminalise legitimate, peaceful activities.

Similarly, lawyer Ozcan Kilic told Reuters that the verdict may have been muddied by political factors, stating that “[t]he court gave a very harsh verdict. We thought it was related to the developments in the operation in northern Iraq. Courts are influenced by conflicts.”

However, the sentences have not diminished Keskin’s championing for human rights. In a tweet, she wrote “I have been in the Human Rights movement for 30 years. I was put on trial a lot, I stayed in prison because of my thoughts. However, for the first time, I was deemed to be a ‘member of an armed organization’ and was sentenced. 6 years 3 months. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here.”

Sanctioning the employees of the censored newspaper exacerbates the media freedom issues troubling Turkey. In 2017, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe released a report concluding that deterioration of media freedoms had reached “alarming levels”. Despite the condemning report, media freedoms have continued to deteriorate. Last October, Human Rights Watch, among 10 other organizations, stated that “Turkey’s press freedom crisis is worsening amid growing state capture of media, the lack of independence of regulatory institutions, and a new social media law designed to clamp down on the remaining spaces for free comment.”

The four former employees are “at liberty pending their appeals,” according to Amnesty International.