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Six-Year Trial 'a Burden,' Says RSF's Turkey Representative


FILE - Protesters hold pictures of RSF representative Erol Onderoglu, journalist Ahmet Nesin and rights activist and academic Sebnem Korur Fincanci as they shout slogans in front of the Pro Kurdish Ozgur Gundem newspaper's headquarters, in Istanbul, June 21,2016.

A media freedom advocate who supports journalists who are threatened, attacked or detained in Turkey was back in court this week as part of a yearslong trial.

Erol Onderoglu, the Turkish representative for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, and two others are being retried on charges including creating "terrorist propaganda" and "condoning a crime."

The charges relate to a solidarity campaign that Onderoglu and other prominent journalists and media freedom activists joined in early 2016. His co-defendants in the case are journalist Ahmet Nesin and human rights defender Sebnem Korur Fincanci.

Each acted as guest editor at the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem, which was subjected to multiple court cases.

FILE - Erol Onderoglu, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative in Turkey, speaks to the press in front of Istanbul's courthouse before his trial on charges of making terror propaganda for Kurdish militants, Sept. 30, 2021.
FILE - Erol Onderoglu, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative in Turkey, speaks to the press in front of Istanbul's courthouse before his trial on charges of making terror propaganda for Kurdish militants, Sept. 30, 2021.

A Turkish court ordered the closure of Ozgur Gundem later that year for allegedly having links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and spreading terrorist propaganda.

The United States and Turkey have both designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Onderoglu's hearing Monday at an Istanbul court was the third in the retrial.

Charges against him were first filed in June 2016, and he was detained for 10 days.

The judicial process has been overwhelming, Onderoglu said.

"Being on trial for almost six years is a burden in itself. As a person who only wants to devote time to human rights advocacy and journalists' rights, coming to this courthouse every two or three months as a defendant is a way of punishment," Onderoglu told VOA.

The case appeared to have been resolved in 2019, when a court acquitted Onderoglu, Nesin and Fincanci, who is now chair of the Turkish Medical Association.

FILE - Human rights activist Sebnem Korur Fincanci flashes victory sign in front of Istanbul's courthouse, July 17, 2019.
FILE - Human rights activist Sebnem Korur Fincanci flashes victory sign in front of Istanbul's courthouse, July 17, 2019.

But the following year, an appeals court overturned the ruling.

Pending the verdict in the retrial, they could face up to 14 years in prison.

The ruling was overturned shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made comments about Fincanci and the Turkish Medical Association, which had been critical of Ankara's response to the pandemic.

Erdogan did not directly name Fincanci, but in an address to his Justice and Development Party in October 2020, he said the association's head came from "a terrorist organization" and asked parliament to take steps to rein in the group's influence.

"We are seeing the heavy shadow of President Erdogan more and more in the court cases," Onderoglu told VOA, adding that he believes the retrial raises "doubts about the independence of the judiciary."

He pointed to recent cases that appear to show a lack of support for fundamental rights, such as the recent arrest of Sedef Kabas, a prominent journalist accused of insulting the president by citing a proverb on a TV show.

Data from Turkey's Justice Ministry show more than 35,500 cases of insulting the president have been filed since 2014.

International calls

Onderoglu was the only defendant present at Monday's hearing. Fincanci is in Ankara and Nesin lives in France.

Olivier Gauvin, the consul general of France in Istanbul, attended the hearing in a show of support, along with several press freedom advocates including Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders, who traveled to Turkey from Britain, and Lisa-Maria Kretschmer, from Berlin.

"We give our full support to our successful colleague Erol Onderoglu and to all journalists fighting for freedom of expression," Vincent told VOA.

"These hearings are ridiculous. The charges have no factual basis, they should all be dropped, and this case should be closed," she said.

The hearing was brief. The court is waiting on a written defense from Nesin to arrive from France and for police to issue a warrant for Inan Kizilkaya, a former managing editor for Ozgur Gundem.

The case was adjourned to June 14.

This article originated in VOA's Turkish Service.

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