Turkey acted illegally by detaining two prominent journalists who were arrested in the wake of the military coup attempt in July 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled.
It is the first judgement by the Strasbourg court relating to the situation facing journalists in the country, which imprisons more media workers than any other in the world – according to one campaign group.
The ECHR found that in the cases of journalists Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay there had been violations of the right to liberty and security, and of the right to freedom of expression.
The pair are just two of hundreds of journalists arrested during a wave of detentions following the failed coup in July 2016.
74-year-old Alpay was a columnist for the daily newspaper Zaman, which was shut down following a decree by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan five days after the attempted military takeover. Last weekend a court ordered his release under house arrest after more than a year in detention.
Altan, an economics teacher and journalist who presented a political TV programme, was sentenced to life in prison in February for belonging to a terrorist organisation, due to alleged ties to the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Five other journalists including Altan’s brother received the same sentence.
The verdict drew fierce criticism from human rights groups and Western countries. Ankara accuses Gulen of orchestrating the failed coup, a charge he denies.
'No factual basis' for guilt
The ECHR’s decision said “the investigating authorities had been unable to demonstrate any factual basis” to determine the journalists’ guilt. The court said Turkey should pay both men 21,500 euros in damages. One Turkish judge issued a partly dissenting opinion, challenging the court’s jurisdiction.
The European court’s rulings follow decisions by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which also found the journalists’ rights had been violated. But the lower courts refused to implement them, saying the top court had overstepped its jurisdiction.
The European Court of Human Rights is recognised by all 47 member states of the Council of Europe – including Turkey and all European Union countries. However, it is strictly a European, not an EU, body.
Nearly 250 journalists and media workers are in jail in Turkey, most in pretrial detention, according to the Stockholm Center for Freedom – a human rights organisation set up by journalists, with a special focus on Turkey.
International pressure has forced some cases to be reconsidered. Last month German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel returned to Berlin after being jailed without charge for over a year in Turkey.
'Profound human rights abuses'
The United Nations said on Tuesday that Turkey had committed “profound human rights abuses against hundreds of thousands of people”, including torture and arbitrary detentions. accusing Ankara of extending the state of emergency, brought in after the coup, to crack down on opposition.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, said nearly 160,000 people had been arrested and 152,000 civil servants sacked – “many totally arbitrarily” – in the past 18 months, describing the numbers as “just staggering”.
The UN’s 28-page report says “massive and serious” human rights violations continue to be committed by Turkish security forces in the southeast of the country.
The Turkish government has dismissed the report. Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the text ignored “the severe and multiple terrorist threats faced by Turkey”, accusing the High Commissioner of having “lost his objectivity and impartiality” and of having “developed prejudices against our country”.