State of absurdity: Ahmet Şık and Turkey’s imprisoned journalists

By Independent Turkey staff

Ahmet Şık is being kept in solitary confinement, with no access to water for three days according to his lawyer. Human rights groups, friends and colleagues of the esteemed investigative journalists are calling on the government to immediately release Şık, labelling his arrest an “absurdity”.

In his first public statement since his arrest, Ahmet Şık declared that: “Just like members of the FETÖ standing trial today, Erdoğan and his followers will one day stand in court and be judged”. Source: Bianet

Ahmet Şık, Ergenekon, Istanbul, Gülenist movement, Cumhuriyet, PEN International, press freedom, torture

At 6pm on December 28, Ahmet Şık posted on Twitter: “I am being detained. I will be taken to the prosecutor’s office regarding a tweet.”

The prominent investigative journalist was subsequently taken to police headquarters, where he was denied contact with his lawyer for a period of five days on the basis of extraordinary legislation enacted under the ongoing state of emergency.

Government officials later leaked to the state-run Anadolu Agency that Şık was taken into custody in relation to a series of tweets and articles for Cumhuriyet newspaper that are alleged to be “terrorist propaganda” and contravene laws against  “disparaging the Turkish Republic.” On December 30, he was charged with propagandizing for FETÖ (Fethullahist Terror Organisation, the name given by the ruling AKP to supporters of Fethullah Gülen) and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).

After finally being given access to his client on January 5, Şık’s lawyer reported that the journalist was being held in solitary confinement, and had been denied drinking water for three days before being transferred to Silivri Prison on January 3. It is an institution Şık knows well, having previously served 375 days there following the infamous Ergenekon investigation in 2008.

The Ergenekon organisation was alleged to have led a far-reaching conspiracy to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. It is now widely acknowledged that the subsequent prosecution of prominent government opponents in relation to the organisation was carried out by members of Fethullah Gülen’s movement, known then as Cemaat (“the community”) within the police and judiciary.

Why was Ahmet Şık targeted?

Şık is believed to have been targeted under this investigation for his book, The Imam’s Army, which detailed the rise of the Gülen movement and its successful attempts to infiltrate state institutions, including the military.

Ironically, after falling out with the AKP government, followers of Fethullah Gülen in the armed forces are now almost universally considered to have been behind the failed coup on July 15, 2016. Ahmet Şık is now accused of supporting an organisation he was previously jailed for trying to expose.    

Despite this, his arrest has not come as a surprise. For some time before formally being taken into custody, Ahmet Şık has been the target of consistent threats and indirect warnings from AKP supporters in response to his new book on the alleged links between the National Intelligence Service (MIT) and jihadists elements of the armed opposition in Syria.

This topic is a highly controversial one. Şık’s colleagues at Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, served 92 days in prison following the publication of an investigation into MIT allegedly transporting arms into Syria, before being released from pretrial detention by the Constitutional Court General Assembly.  

When his colleagues at Cumhuriyet were arrested in October last year, Şık scathingly referred to the AKP as an organised crime network during a live interview, remarking that a “mafia gang under a party label had taken the entire of Turkey hostage [sic].”

More recently, he has written a series of articles for Cumhuriyet criticising the investigation of the July 15 coup; refusing to accept the official narrative that the coup was a purely Gülenist plot, Şık argues that the coup plotters were likely a complex alliance between Gülenists, Kemalists and ultra-nationalists. He believes that MIT uncovered the coup hours before it was launched, and then successfully brokered a deal with the Kemalist and nationalists officers involved in the coup.

According to Şık, the coup failed because the government managed to break the alliance between the non-Gülenist coup plotters and those connected to Fethullah Gülen. Such a view challenges the dominant narrative portrayed by both Turkish and international media surrounding the coup attempt.

In the wake of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov’s assassination in Ankara, the journalist similarly challenged the dominant narrative that the assassin was linked to the Gülenist organisation, tweeting that the hysteria in pro-government media outlets was a diversion from the assassin’s occupation as an active Ankara police officer.  

Solitary confinement may constitute “torture”

The treatment of Ahmet Şık is emblematic of the pressure facing many Turkish journalists. Turkey is rated only “partly free” in the aggregate scoring of political rights and civil liberties compiled by Freedom House. It ranks 3.5 out of a possible 7 in its Freedom Status, and its projected future has a downward trend. Turkey currently has the highest number of journalists imprisoned globally, with an alarming 155 journalists in custody since the coup of July 2015 according to PEN International. This is higher than both Ethiopia and China, both known for tight controls over the press.

PEN International, the international human rights organisation working on behalf of imprisoned or oppressed writers and journalists, told Independent Turkey following the arrest of Ahmet Şık that “Turkey is now the largest prison for journalists in the world. Conditions in detention are appalling. Most journalists in detention have been prevented from accessing their legal teams or knowing the charges or evidence against them. The very unpredictability of the situation is contributing to an atmosphere of self-censorship as fear takes hold.”

“Şık has long been the staunchest critic of the Gülenist movement in Turkey and his investigative journalism about the group led to his own imprisonment in 2011. It is difficult to overstate the absurdity of his being charged with this crime.”

While his investigation surrounding the Gülenist movement in Turkey earned him plaudits, Şık did not let his treatment at the hand of the movement get the better of him. “Since he left prison, Ahmet put his grudge away about whoever the culprit was behind the major judicial oversights and did not join the blood-thirsty flocks of the media who cried for revenge against an opaque enemy,” Yavuz Baydar, a colleague of Şık’s, wrote of his 2011-2012 detention. “Instead, he continued to do what he from the beginning aimed to do: to scrutinize the deep structures of power nested in the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy.”

The conditions faced by Şık and many of his peers during imprisonment have been characterised by the Anti-Torture Initiative as cruel and inhumane, particularly in regards to the use of solitary confinement. A United Nations Special Rapporteur finds solitary confinement applied “during pre-trial detention or as a punishment” may also constitute “degrading treatment or torture”.  

Press freedom associations, academics, and journalists have called on the government to release Ahmet Şık. Like Aslı Erdoğan before him, his detention appears to be based solely on his journalistic activities. As a Research Turkey member and friend of Şık’s told Independent Turkey in a condition of anonymity: “What I know is this: Ahmet is just a journalist. And what he owns in his life are his writings, his news, his books, and his family, nothing else.”

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