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Ahmet Sik, one of the most renowned and defiant journalists in Turkey, has been languishing in pre-trial detention since December 2016. He made a name for himself reporting on state abuses in eastern Turkey, where the army was engaged in a violent counter-insurgency to crush the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He now stands accused of spreading terrorist propaganda in favour of exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) blames for orchestrating the failed coup on 15 July 2016.
Since that day, the country has undergone a major transformation. Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has altered the constitution from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, giving him near absolute power over the judiciary and the legislative and executive branches of government. He has also used the failed coup as a pretext to impose a state of emergency, enabling him to purge the country of dissidents by framing all his opponents as members of the ‘Fethullah Terrorist Organization’ (FETO).
Sik has not been spared despite the absurdity of the charges. In 2011, he published The Imam’s Army, a book that exposed how Gulen and his followers infiltrated state institutions, including the police force.
Gulen and Erdogan were close allies at the time. Together, they were cracking down on another alleged clandestine organization known as Ergenekon. More than 330 high-profile military officers were convicted in 2012 for plotting to overthrow the government. Some critics claimed that the trial was a victory for democracy. Others suspected that it was a pretext for the AKP to imprison its opponents.
Looking back, it appears it was the latter. Sik, for one, was charged of being a member of Ergenekon after publishing his investigations into Gulen’s movement. Although he was not convicted, he spent 375 days in prison.
Dexter Filkins, a journalist for The New Yorker, noted that while Gulenists managed to get Sik, they could not completely ban his book. Soon after his arrest, the publication appeared on the internet. A group of friends and colleagues then mobilized to print the book, selling copies at the Istanbul Book Fair in November 2011.
The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen began to whither in 2013. The two started to clash as they fought to accumulate power at the other’s expense. More than three years later, Sik was arrested again for publishing investigative pieces in Cumhuriyet, a long-standing opposition newspaper. On 30 December 2016, he was officially charged with spreading propaganda for FETO, which was the very organization he had worked tirelessly to expose.
The arrest was not a surprise, although the charges are even more ludicrous than the ones he had faced in the Ergenekon trial, say Turkish and international rights groups. Sik, along with his colleagues at Cumhuriyet, were already receiving threats from hardline AKP supporters, warning them to stop investigating links between Turkey’s National Intelligence Service (MIT) and jihadist factions in Syria. They did not, of course.
Even more daringly, Sik wrote a series of investigative articles that contradicted the government’s narrative of the coup attempt, which claimed that the entire operation was merely a Gulen plot. Instead, Sik wrote that those who conceived the mission were a cross alliance of Gulenists, Kemalists and ultra-nationalists. He further suspected that MIT made a deal with the Kemalists and ultra-nationalists, effectively halting the entire operation. “A military coup was squashed, but a junta came to power,” Sik later declared in his defence statement.
Sik’s wife, Yonca Verdioglu, has fought tirelessly for her husband’s release. The two met in the 1990s, when Sik was reporting for a liberal daily paper and Verdioglu worked at a human rights foundation. The couple shared similar political views: they were both displeased with the political situation and wanted Turkey to become a secular and transparent democracy.
Those ambitions suffered a major setback when Sik’s close friend and fellow journalist, Metin Goktepe, was arrested and tortured by police on 8 January 1996. Authorities seized him while he was taking pictures of a funeral of two political prisoners who were killed in a prison riot. He died in police custody. Initially, the police denied any role in his death, claiming he fell off a building. But after Sik and other journalists investigated the incident, they helped prove that their friend had been killed.
Goktepe’s death compelled Sik to help form a union for independent journalism, which would play a significant role in fighting for civil rights and state accountability. Maximillian Popp, who wrote a story about Sik for Germany’s Der Spiegel, noted that some of Sik’s future opponents benefited from his early activism. The most notable figure, of course, was Erdogan, who capitalized on civil pressure on the army, which had overthrown three elected governments in the past. Erdogan eventually wrestled power away from the military through the Ergenekon trial, enabling him gradually to change the face of the country.
In many ways, Verdioglu’s fight for Sik’s release is a fight to reinstall a semblance of democracy in Turkey. Then again, democracy in its purest form – free elections, rule of law and equitable distribution of power – arguably never existed there.
Verdioglu nonetheless felt compelled to present her husband, the way she knows him, to the world. She even teamed up with Sik’s friends and colleagues to release a video of her husband’s career. The point of the video was to show the public how Sik went about his work. “Ahmet has never allowed himself to be corrupted, either by power or money,” Can Atalay, one of the initiators of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, told Der Spiegel.
It appears that not even prison can make Sik compromise his ideals. In his opening court statement, which he gave on 26 July 2017, he blasted Erdogan for persecuting those who think for themselves. He then declared that journalism is not a crime despite what the rulers of totalitarian regimes, their judiciaries and collaborators may say.
“I was a journalist yesterday, and I’m still one today and will remain as such tomorrow,” he told the packed courtroom. “Therefore, the uncompromising conflict between [journalists] and those who want to suppress the truth will continue.”