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İstanbul court again refuses to release journalist Altan

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İstanbul’s 26th High Criminal Court on Friday rejected a demand for release filed by lawyers representing journalist Mehmet Altan despite a decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court to free the jailed journalist that was published on the same day in the Official Gazette, the T24 news website reported.

The Constitutional Court had ruled on Jan. 11 that journalists Altan and Şahin Alpay be released, saying their rights had been violated. But İstanbul’s 26th and 13th High Criminal Courts that evening refused to comply with the order to release the journalists, stating that the verdict had not yet been published in the Official Gazette.

Lawyers for the two journalists on Jan. 15 appealed the rulings to İstanbul’s 27th and 14th High Criminal Courts. Denying the requests, both courts upheld the decisions of the two lower courts.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir on Wednesday called on Turkish authorities to ensure that a Constitutional Court decision in the cases of imprisoned journalists Altan and Alpay is implemented and that the journalists be released without further delay.

PEN International, ARTICLE 19, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Human Rights Watch, the Index on Censorship, the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Jan. 12 expressed dismay that the decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court to release jailed journalists Alpay and Altan had not been carried out by the two lower courts, citing implications for the rule of law in Turkey.

These were the first rulings that the Constitutional Court had made involving detained journalists since an attempted coup in July 2016, following which scores of journalists were detained. Ruling on individual applications filed on behalf of Alpay and Altan, the court said their detentions led to violations of the “right to personal liberty and security” protected under Article 19 of the Constitution and “freedom of expression and the press” protected under Articles 26 and 28.

The court stated that “press freedom as a specific element of freedom of expression has vital importance in democracies. It includes not only the dissemination of ideas and information, but also society’s access to those ideas and information,” dovetailing the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) jurisprudence on the role of journalism and the importance of press freedom in a democratic society. The decision was taken by an 11-6 majority vote. It was widely expected that the ruling would set the precedent for the release of other journalists in the country.

Lawyer Veysel Ok, who made the application to the Constitutional Court on behalf of Alpay, said the top court’s decision could be a milestone for the trials of journalists in Turkey.

“This ruling, which came in the first application after the failed coup attempt, should set a precedent for all trials,” said Ok, adding, “I hope this ruling becomes the first step of a broader right to freedom of expression in the country.”

Under the Turkish Constitution’s Article 153, all Constitutional Court rulings enter into force immediately and are binding for the legislative, executive and judicial organs, including the administration and officials.

Altan, a professor of economics at İstanbul University and a columnist known for his liberal views and criticism of the government, and Alpay, a veteran journalist and columnist for the now-closed Zaman and Today’s Zaman dailies, were jailed in a crackdown on media after an abortive coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

The two are charged with membership in a terrorist organization, abetting a coup against the government and attempting to destroy the constitutional order. Prosecutors also accuse the suspects of links to the faith-based Gülen movement, blamed by the Turkish government of having masterminded the putsch.

Mehmet Altan was arrested along with his brother Ahmet Altan, a novelist and former editor-in-chief of the closed-down Taraf daily, on charges of sending “subliminal messages” to coup plotters in a TV program on July 14, a day before the coup attempt.

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