In February, three dissident Turkish journalists accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” were sentenced to life in prison. Harlem Désir (pictured), the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, said that the punishments “raise fundamental questions about the ability of the [Turkish] judiciary to uphold the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.” (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Two recent criminal cases in Turkey underscore Ankara’s disturbing double standard when it comes to the concept of justice.
In February, three dissident Turkish journalists accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” — for their alleged “involvement in the 2016 coup attempt” against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — were sentenced to life in prison.
Prakash, considered Australia’s “most wanted ISIS member,” was linked by the FBI to a failed plot to attack the Statue of Liberty in New York. In one of his many propaganda videos for ISIS, Prakash describes his conversion from Buddhism to Islam after a trip to Cambodia. He recounts attending meetings at a mosque and Islamic center in Melbourne. After reading the Koran and becoming a Muslim, he says, he traveled to Syria to join the jihad and the caliphate in 2013.
In 2015, the Australian government issued an arrest warrant for Prakash for membership in a terrorist organization and for his suspected involvement in a failed plot to behead a police officer on Anzac Day.
During his hearing on November 1, 2017 at the Kilis High Criminal Court — via video call from the Gaziantep prison, where he has been detained since 2016 — Prakash told the judges:
“I regret having joined ISIS. I want to be tried in Turkey. I do not want to be returned to Australia. If I must be sent to a country, send me to a Muslim country.”
In July 2018, Turkey rejected Australia’s request to extradite Prakash, a U.S.- and UN-designated terrorist known by his alias, Abu Khaled al-Cambodi. A few months later, the Australian government announced that it had revoked his citizenship.
Although the Turkish Criminal Code states that membership in a terrorist organization warrants up to 15 years imprisonment, the judges who tried Prakash decided in the March 15 hearing to go for a seven-and-a-half-year sentence, based on a provision that allows for mitigating circumstances, such as “background, social relations, the behavior of the offender after the commission of the crime and during the trial, and the potential effects of the penalty on the future of the offender.”
If Prakash’s punishment is also approved by Turkey’s Court of Appeals, he will be eligible for early release in two and a half years, which means that he will be free in 2021.
By contrast, the situation of the three journalists critical of the Erdogan regime — Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak — remains grim, if not hopeless, despite the efforts of their attorneys and condemnation from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN.
Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, responded to the plight of the journalists by stating:
“The magnitude of these punishments, and the fact that the court failed to implement a related, binding ruling of the Constitutional Court, also raise fundamental questions about the ability of the [Turkish] judiciary to uphold the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.”
David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, made a similar declaration:
“The court decision condemning journalists to aggravated life in prison for their work, without presenting substantial proof of their involvement in the coup attempt or ensuring a fair trial, critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey.”
Sadly, such public denunciations have not worked. At least 144 intellectuals are languishing in Turkish jails for their work or political views, while an ISIS terrorist has been given a “minimum punishment” that paves the way for his early release.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.