Berlin Turkish journalist Can Dündar, who lives in exile in Germany, was sentenced on Wednesday to more than 27 years in prison by a Turkish court. The court accused the journalist of having obtained state secrets for espionage purposes. Judge Akın Gürlek also convicted him of supporting terrorism.
The 59-year-old journalist has lived in Germany since late summer 2016, and several lawsuits are pending against him in Turkey. However, it is unlikely that Germany will extradite the former editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.
The latest ruling was prompted by a report in Cumhuriyet from 2015, when Dündar was editor-in-chief. In May 2015, the anti-government publication had reported on the alleged secret arms supply from the Turkish intelligence service to Syrian rebel groups.
According to Dündar’s report, the trucks in which the weapons were transported through Turkey belonged to the Turkish intelligence service MIT. The truck drivers allegedly identified themselves as MIT members for the police officers who stopped the vehicles. The trucks had been stopped two different days in early 2014 in Ceyhan, Adana province and in Hatay. In both cases, the weapons were discovered under a load of medical supplies. The weapons were allegedly grenade launchers complete with projectiles and large quantities of ammunition for machine guns and other weapons.
Dündar allegedly received the information and photos of the smugglers from Enis Berberoğlu, the former editor-in-chief of the large daily newspaper Hürriyet. Berberoğlu later became a member of parliament for the opposition CHP party. He himself was in prison until the summer of 2020.
Other Turkish media had also reported on the arms smuggling. Aydınlık, a small daily newspaper, had published the report even before Dündars Cumhüriyet, but the journalists were never convicted of publishing the story.
But Dündar, on the other hand, was convicted in 2016 of disclosing state secrets.
However, this verdict was later overturned when the Supreme Court had insisted that he should also be held accountable for espionage. After three months of detention before the trial, Dündar was released in early 2016 by order of the Turkish Constitutional Court, shortly after he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt during a trial. Dündar was sentenced to more than five in prison at the time, but managed to escape to Germany.
Indirectly, the 14th Judicial Department in Istanbul admitted in its latest ruling that Dündar may have been right in his accusation of illegally supplying weapons to Syrian rebels. Dündar received 18 years and nine months in prison for obtaining secret information “for the purpose of espionage.”
However, the charge of illegally disclosing state secrets was dropped. The court also sentenced Dündar to eight years and nine months in prison for supporting terrorism. This accusation has been leveled against most dissidents in Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt.
The court in Istanbul based its verdict on a letter sent to the UN Security Council in 2015 by Bashir Jaafari, the former Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations.
CBS News received the letter sent by Jaafari, in which he complains to the UN that the Turkish government traded weapons into Syria. As proof of this, Jaafari quotes, among other things, the article from Can Dündar.
“Now the Turkish government is using this letter as proof that I am spying for the Syrian government,” Dündar told CBS News.
Dündar’s lawyers boycotted the verdict. They accused the court of acting in accordance with political instructions from the government and violating the rights of the accused. For example, they said the court had discussed the case several times without defense.
Since Dündar fled to Germany, all his assets in Turkey were confiscated a few months ago.
“We expected this result for five years,” Dündar told CBS News. “They were trying to find the right judge who would convict this stupid verdict because it is not easy to accuse anyone of espionage without any evidence.”
“Now they have a letter from a Syrian official who is simply quoting various reports on arms delivery and the Turkish judges call it evidence. It is ridiculous,” he added.
The opposition calls the judge Akın Gürlek “Erdoğan’s trigger”.
Also, Dündar’s wife, Dilek – who joined her husband in exile in the summer of 2019 – called the verdict a joke: “Can become Bond 008 just overnight – this is ridiculous.”
Dündar will now go to the European Court of Human Rights. “My lawyers will appeal to the High Court, but I do not expect any of it because it is under Erdoğan’s control,” Dündar told CBS News.
“Everyone knows that these decisions and rulings are political and not legal,” he pointed out.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had repeatedly called Dündar an “agent.” He also rejected on Wednesday a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which demanded the release of Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş. As a consequence, Turkey’s exclusion from the Council of Europe is now likely to be on the agenda.
Critics of the Erdoğan government see the decision in the Dündar case as further evidence that Turkey is moving further and further away from European legal norms. Strasbourg’s human rights court on Tuesday had demanded the release of Kurdish politician Demirtaş, who has been in custody for more than four years. Demirtaş is being held for political reasons, European judges said.
The Strasbourg court also demanded the release of democracy activist Osman Kavala, who has been in prison for more than three years. Like Dündar, Demirtaş and Kavala were publicly condemned by Erdoğan as enemies of the state.
As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is obliged to implement the Strasbourg judgments. In the case of Demirtaş and Kavala, however, Ankara refuses to do so.
Turkey is regularly criticized internationally for its systematic restriction of press freedom. The country is currently 154th in the International Press Freedom Ranking of the Reporters Without Borders organization.
This verdict is a deterrent to other journalists, Dündar said. “Who would now publish such a story, knowing that they might be in prison for decades?”
But he remains optimistic: “When the political climate changes, all these rulings become invalid.”