October 12, 2015

Journalist Bülent Keneş is political prisoner

Abdullah Bozkurt

Bülent Keneş, a veteran journalist of more than 20 years and Today's Zaman's editor-in-chief of eight years, was unlawfully arrested on trumped-up charges last Friday and is a political prisoner who should be treated as such under the circumstances.

Many prominent jurists in Turkey have recently declared that there is no point in discussing politically motivated judicial proceedings within the confines of the articles of the Constitution and the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) as well as from the guidance of the case law.

From any angle, it does not make sense for the government to push legal boundaries to the point of inventing crimes that are not even in the penal code. Due process and the right to a fair trial no longer exist in Turkey.

Under these terrible circumstances of rampant human rights violations, the verdict is already clear. Turkish democracy has unfortunately descended into an authoritarian regime under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's iron-grip rule, with state institutions failing one after another and the rule of law effectively suspended. If a government, in an unprecedented move, dares to arrest two senior judges who ordered the release of a journalist and a leading national TV network manager, Hidayet Karaca, who has been in jail for almost a year without formal charges and an indictment, then nobody is safe in this country from the witch-hunt persecution of political Islamists.

The outcry from Douglas Frantz, who is currently serving as the US assistant secretary for public affairs and was recently appointed as a deputy secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), when Keneş was being dragged to the police station from his newspaper's office, was in fact a belated testament to that bitter fact.

“I remind my Turkish friends that journalism is not a crime, as Bulent Keneş is being arrested for a Tweet. This is not democracy," Frantz, a former reporter, tweeted on the day Keneş was hauled away in a police car.

Keneş, 47, who is not a politician and is in fact an apolitical figure that has never shied away from criticizing politicians from all walks of life when he thought it was warranted, must be deemed a “political prisoner” in a country where the levers of power are held hostage to the whims and emotions of one man and his gang. He perfectly fits the criteria of being classified as such under the clear benchmarks that were developed by the independent experts of the Council of Europe (CoE) in 2001. These general criteria were later approved by the Committee of Ministers, the executive body of the CoE, and the Parliamentary Assembly. They are still valid today.

According to the CoE's five-point summarized criteria, “a person deprived of his or her personal liberty is to be regarded as a 'political prisoner', under the following circumstances: For one, ‘if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association'.” Keneş's imprisonment is, for all intents and purposes, an example of a violation of Article 10 of the ECHR, which protects freedom of expression and freedom of speech. His case may give rise to further violations of other ECHR articles as well.

Secondly, “if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence,” that also qualifies as political prisoner status. Keneş has faced a series of criminal investigations, as well as civil suits, that were launched on charges of allegedly insulting the president, prime minister and even their advisors through critical messages that were posted on Twitter. The judge said that Sunday's arrest of the chief editor was due to his continuing to tweet, a completely made up charge as there is no such thing in the penal code. Hence, the detention was solely a political move. The charges that were brought against him effectively criminalize the right to freedom of expression in Turkey.

The third criteria is: “If, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of.” Keneş is charged under violation of Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which states that anyone who insults the president will face a sentence of up to four years in jail. Yet that article never led to the arrest or detention of anybody under former President Abdullah Gül's seven-year presidency. In sharp contrast, 545 insult cases were filed, 14 individuals were arrested and 282 people have faced investigations over the one-year period during which Erdoğan has served as president. No president in Turkish history, with the exception of Erdoğan, has launched as many criminal cases against those who exercise the right to dissent.

The fourth says “if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.” This point is self-explanatory in Keneş's case. He went to the courthouse to give his deposition to prosecutor Umut Tepe on Thursday on his own. Yet, the prosecutor did not even bother to listen to him and immediately referred him to court for arrest. The judge declined and released him on probation. The next day, Tepe again petitioned to the same judge, saying that Keneş must be arrested. That judge issued a detention warrant when in fact he could have summoned him to the court.

Keneş, a respected member of society with strong ties to his community, has never been a flight risk. In fact, he was in Japan attending a conference a day before he voluntarily went to the courthouse in İstanbul. He could have simply decided not to return to court if he wanted to do so. Therefore, the assertion that he might flee, cited as one of the reasons for his arrest, is not a valid argument. Also, the possibility of tampering with evidence, a reason given by authorities for his arrest, is not possible, either. The evidence authorities collected to use against Keneş was 14 Twitter messages posted by the chief editor; none of which mentioned Erdoğan by name and one of which was, in fact, retweeted from the Twitter account of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. All of these were already in the public domain and no possibility of destroying the evidence exists.

I guess that Erdoğan and his associates wanted to make an example out of this outspoken journalist as part of their unrelenting intimidation campaign to silence the media, with only three weeks left before the critical election on Nov. 1.

The last criterion is: “If the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” Keneş was apparently targeted by Erdoğan as the president's lawyers launched criminal complaints against him. What happened to Keneş were certainly not fair, and riddled with violations of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK). If the posting of Keneş' Twitter messages is a crime, then the prosecutor should have also probed Kılıçdaroğlu's Twitter account, where the controversial tweet was originally posted, or those who retweeted Keneş' other messages.

Under these circumstances, the CoE must list Keneş as a political prisoner of a member state and call on the Turkish government to release him at once. The same goes for the other European and transatlantic institutions that have a stake in Turkish democracy.

Published on Today's Zaman, 12 October 2015, Monday