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Mustafa Balbay’s release after four years’ imprisonment highlights need for judicial reform

Tuesday 10 December 2013 - 11:04am

10 December 2013

PEN International welcomes the release of writer, journalist and opposition deputy Mustafa Balbay after four years and 277 days in prison. Balbay, who was sentenced in August 2013 to 34 years and eight months in prison following a deeply flawed trial was released yesterday following a 4 December ruling by the Constitutional Court that his continuing detention was an unlawful infringement of his parliamentary immunity.

Legal proceedings against Balbay, however, are set to continue, a process that could last for years as his appeal goes through the Turkish courts. PEN International remains concerned at the length of the imprisonment that he could face should his conviction and sentence be upheld.

Mustafa Balbay has been in prison for the last four years for his alleged involvement in a clandestine network of ultranationalists, dubbed ‘Ergenekon’, the name of a mythical valley that plays an important role in a Turkish nationalist creation myth.

The Ergenekon organisation is alleged to have masterminded various acts of political violence during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and to have been planning a military coup at the time of the first wave of arrests. Hundreds of individuals – including military and intelligence officers, lawyers, academics, doctors, politicians and journalists – were arrested as part of the investigation from the beginning of 2007 onwards.

Mustafa Balbay was initially arrested on 1 July 2008, spending five days in a pre-trial detention before being released pending trial. He was re-arrested on 5 March 2009 after an appeal from prosecutors; beginning a four year, 277 day spell in prison.

He was accused of taking part in secret meetings with generals, during which plans for a military coup were formulated. The evidence against Balbay included diaries and notes that he strenuously maintains were taken as part of his journalistic activities, highly classified documents, and wiretaps of his newspaper’s Ankara office phones.

While welcoming it as a much-needed reckoning for shady deep-state actors, human rights observers also heavily criticised the Ergenekon trial for a lack of focus on political violence carried out during the 80s and 90s (particularly in the Kurdish-dominated southeast of the country). At the time of the trials there were serious concerns about the fairness of the proceedings; a claim that arose from the profligate use of ‘secret witnesses’, flimsy evidence and “terrorism” charges against those with no direct links to the plotting or execution of violent acts.

On 5 August 2013, Balbay was sentenced to 34 years and eight months in prison under Articles 312 (attempting to overthrow or incapacitate the Turkish government by use of force or violence), 326 (procuring classified official documents), 327 (procuring documents relating to state security) and 334 (providing or obtaining classified personal documents) of the Turkish Penal Code. He was released on 4 December by the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court after the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

A journalist for over 30 years, at the time of his arrest, Balbay was the head of the Cumhuriyet newspaper’s Ankara office - Balbay continued working with the paper as a columnist throughout his time in prison. He is also a prolific author, having published more than 30 books. In June 2011, while in detention, he was elected as parliamentary deputy for Izmir province for Turkey’s main opposition party.

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