[OPINION] Saga of Dutch journalist tells the tale of Turkey

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Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink answers journalists' questions as she leaves Diyarbakir courthouse on April 8, 2015, in Diyarbakir. Prosecutors accuse Geerdink of spreading "terrorist propaganda" for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Geerdink, who specializes in covering Kurdish issues and has since 2013 been based in Turkey's most populous Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, denies the charges. AFP PHOTO/ILYAS AKENGIN / AFP PHOTO / ILYAS AKENGIN

By Abdullah Bozkurt

There is no shortage of examples about how the Turkish government scapegoats innocent people for the problems it has created in an effort to deflect criticism and avoid accountability in the governance of the country. Instead of owning up to the mess and claiming responsibility for the failures under their watch, the Islamist rulers, led by an autocratic president in Turkey, have become accustomed to pointing the finger at others in often conspiracy-ridden theories that lack any credible evidence whatsoever.

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

The case of Frederike Hanneke Geerdink, a 47-year-old Dutch journalist who was detained, charged and tried under anti-terror laws in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern city of Diyarbakır, is yet another example of how the Turkish government plays this dubious game of shifting blame to others for its own dirty bidding. The new details that have recently emerged in this case also explain how the Turkish judiciary acts according to the whims and emotions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and why it is not ashamed of toeing the line with the political authorities. In the meantime, thousands of judges and prosecutors who acted independently and followed the rule of law were punished in this country by either being dismissed, persecuted or arrested on trumped-up charges.

On Jan. 6, 2015, the day Geerdink was detained at her home in Diyarbakır by a raiding party of eight police officers, I was in Ankara, the Turkish capital, having lunch with visiting Foreign Minister of the Netherlands Bert Koenders, at the residence of the Dutch ambassador, along with two other colleagues. The working lunch was arranged for the minister to get a better reading on Turkey from the accounts of independent and critical journalists. Several pro-government journalists were also invited, but they declined, apparently for fear of possible repercussions from the government. In the middle of the lunch, while we were engaged in an exchange on political developments and press freedom woes in Turkey, the minister’s aide rushed into the dining room to break the news of Geerdink’s detention to Koenders and the guests at the table. I can still see the shock and anger on the face of Koenders, who was in Ankara as the guest of honor and keynote speaker at the annual conference of Turkish ambassadors at the request of Turkish government.

We were all taken aback by the shocking news and lost our appetite as a somber mood settled into the room. I knew Geerdink and had met her once. I remember hosting her at a lunch in the headquarters of the now seized and shuttered Zaman daily in 2008 when I was the executive editor for its English edition, Today’s Zaman. When the Dutch government protested the detention and Koenders threatened Ankara with leaving Turkey without addressing the conference, Ankara rushed to secure Geerdink’s release from police custody pending trial. In explanation, Turkish authorities told Koenders that this was the doing of the Gülen movement, a civic network of volunteers active in education, charity and social work. The movement, inspired by US-based intellectual Fethullah Gülen, is now described as a terror group by Erdoğan and his associates in the government because of its critical stand on government corruption, the abuse of religion for political purposes and the arming of jihadists in Syria. Gülen gets blamed for virtually everything that goes wrong in Turkey, from the declining value of the of currency amid economic problems to a failed coup attempt without any evidence to substantiate such absurd claims.

In the detention of the Dutch journalist, the government again resorted to the same lie. Neither Koenders nor embassy officials were convinced by the explanation at the time. Yet that was the message communicated to the Dutch government. Now that we know more about the facts in this case and have a profile of the key people involved in the prosecution and trial of Geerdink, another fabrication in a long list of lies perpetuated by the government of Turkey in the face of embarrassing development on the day of Koender’s arrival in Ankara has been exposed. The indictment against the Dutch journalist showed that two tips came to the Diyarbakır Police Department about her, one on June 25, 2014 and the other on July 19, 2014, claiming that she had engaged in terror propaganda. The police appear to have been pushed into action only after a third complaint was filed with the Prime Ministry on Sept. 17, 2014. Ironic that Koender’s former colleague, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was prime minister at the time.

The anonymous tips smelled like they were the work of Turkish intelligence from the wording and the way they were crafted. Geerdink was accused of being an agent of a foreign government and acting suspiciously, having met with alleged terrorists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This is one modus operandi of the notorious National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which often abuses the criminal justice system to harass people targeted in Turkey. Apparently the earlier tips did not do the trick and did not trigger any action. The later tip about her was juicier as it included offensive language allegedly used in retweets done by Geerdink against Erdogan’s wife, Emine, according a source who is intimately familiar with the details of the case. Since he fears for his life, I am not disclosing his identity to protect him and his family.

It appears the tip, conveyed from Ankara, prompted the police in Diyarbakır to gather information about her under instructions from Ahmet Hakan Özdemir, the investigating prosecutor, who is a member of the pro-government Platform for Union within the Judiciary (YBP-Yargıda Birlik). Despite serious allegations, no real investigation was conducted into her, and not even a wiretapping of her communications was authorized to find out whether she actually worked for foreign intelligence. Instead, investigators merely compiled articles and postings by the journalist as hard evidence of her alleged propaganda on behalf of a violent terror group. The anonymous tips were also considered reliable information in the file. Prosecutor Ahmet Hakan Özdemir, who most likely believed this would please the political masters in Ankara, rushed to secure a detention warrant from investigating judge Ali Topaloğlu, who also authorized the search and seizure order for Geerdink’s home in Diyarbakır.

The case file consisted of allegations without any evidence suggesting that Geerdink had in fact deliberately and determinedly engaged in propaganda on behalf of a terror group with pro-Kurdish articles and social media postings that were critical of the government. Ahmet Hakan Özdemir charged her under anti-terror law No. 3713 Article 7(2) with disseminating propaganda on behalf of a terrorist group. She also faced multiple felony counts under Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article 43(1) because she had allegedly committed successive offenses. Deprivation of her rights was also sought for her according to TCK Article 53. The prosecutor demanded a five-year sentence for her. The major irony in the indictment was that the charges included making propaganda on behalf of two rival terror groups. One was the PKK and the other was the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Because the Dutch journalist was critical of the Turkish government with respect to handling the ISIL threat, she was alleged to have been making an effort to portray the Turkish government as aiding and abetting ISIL. In a bizarre twist of logic, the prosecutor concluded that she was also disseminating propaganda on behalf of ISIL by doing so.

However, the trial prosecutor, Şaban Özdemir, who took over the indictment from Ahmet Hakan Özdemir in the courtroom, went against his colleague and sought the acquittal of the journalist, citing a lack of evidence in the file to substantiate the charges and referring to case law of the European Court of Human Rights in judgments with respect to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees freedom of expression. Among the three judges hearing the case, two judges, Ramazan Faruk Güzel and Buket Kabataş, ruled for acquittal, agreeing with Şaban Özdemir that no criminal evidence existed against the journalist. Presiding judge Melih Uçar disagreed and urged the conviction of Geerdink but was out-voted two-to-one. In a dissenting opinion on April 13, 2015 Uçar wrote that the journalist had praised terror and glorified violence with her writings and should be punished.

Judge Güzel, who moved for the acquittal of Geerdink, was also the presiding judge in a case brought against slain lawyer, human rights defender and the then-head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, Tahir Elçi, who was charged with abuse of authority, in a government-orchestrated move. Güzel rendered an acquittal decision for Elçi on Nov. 18, 2015, and cleared him of any wrongdoing despite government pressure. Elçi had defended three VICE News journalists — British citizens Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury and Iraqi national Mohammed Ismael Rasool — when they were arrested on baseless terrorism charges in Turkey on Aug. 27 while reporting from Diyarbakir. Elçi was gunned down on the streets of Diyarbakır 10 days after Güzel acquitted him in the courtroom. Judge Güzel was later dismissed by a hastily arranged ruling from the government-controlled judicial council on Nov.11, 2015. His office in the courthouse was raided by the police. Within two days, he and his wife had to make a decision to pack up and move abroad for safety. He fled Turkey not only to avoid certain imprisonment but most likely a murder similar to that of Elçi. He is now facing sham investigations and court cases on various charges, from alleged aid to PKK terrorists during the Kobani events of Oct. 6-7, 2014, to involvement in the failed coup of July 15, 2016 and being a member of the Gülen movement.

Public prosecutor Şaban Özdemir, who had advocated for the acquittal of journalist Geerdink, was also punished by the government for this decision as well. He was pressured to reverse his position on acquittal during trial hearings by Chief Public Prosecutor Ramazan Solmaz, an Islamist and government loyalist. Yet Şaban Özdemir did not yield to the pressure. He was dismissed and is currently imprisoned on trumped-up charges of terror and coup plotting and for alleged affiliation with the Gülen movement. The other judge, Kabataş, was also harassed by government officials and threatened by administrators at the Diyarbakır Courthouse. She was reportedly spared the wrath of the government when her husband called in favors with long-time friends in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

On the other hand, prosecutor Ahmet Hakan Özdemir, who brought false charges in the first place, was rewarded with his first-choice assignment by being appointed to Konya province. His wife, a judge as well, also reaped the benefits of her husband’s witch-hunt against the journalist and secured her choice of reassignment. Judge Ali Topaloğlu, who authorized the detention of the journalist, was reassigned to Samsun province, also his preferred choice of location, and was promoted to a senior judgeship at the regional appeals court there. Judge Uçar, who dissented to the majority decision of acquittal of the journalist, was reassigned to his home province of Ankara as a reward for his efforts. Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor Solmaz, who scrambled his men to file an immediate appeal against the acquittal decision, was reassigned to the Mediterranean resort province of Antalya, next to his home province of Isparta.

Despite the acquittal on all charges, Geerdink was again detained on Sept. 5, 2015 on charges of “hindering a military operation and supporting a terrorist organization” in the southeastern province of Hakkari, and four days later was deported from Turkey. According to the Council of Europe’s (CoE) media platform for the safety of journalists, Geerdink’s lawyers successfully challenged the deportation order, although the terror charges are still in the appeals process. Ironically, Turkish Ambassador to the Council of Europe Erdogan İşçan wrote a letter to the CoE on Oct. 19, 2015 defending the Turkish government for the acquittal of Geerdink, while those who played a key role in that decision were persecuted in Turkey.

I wrote about all these details to shed light on how the Turkish government plays a double game and communicates different messages depending on the target audience. At home, it portrays a journalist as a spy, plasters her pictures all over a media that is controlled by Erdoğan’s family and falsely accuses members of the Gülen movement of conspiring against Turkey and cooperating with foreign intelligence. While Erdoğan sells this conspiracy frenzy to a domestic audience, he tells the outside world that the detention of a journalist has nothing to do with the government but was the work of what he calls a shadowy parallel structure nestled in the judiciary.

Erdoğan and his thugs, who have political authority in the governance of the country, have never own up to any problems in Turkey. Instead, the government has punished independent judges, prosecutors and lawyers who have engaged in their profession based on evidence, the rule of law and the principles enshrined in the ECHR, which is a binding legal document for Turkey’s judiciary.

 

 

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