Mustafa Balbay

İstanbulCumhuriyetnewspapercolumnistultranationalist-leftistMarch 5 2009Balbay, a columnist and former Ankara representative for the leftist-ultranationalist daily Cumhuriyet, was detained as part of the government’s investigation into the alleged Ergenekon plot, a shadowy conspiracy that authorities claim was aimed at overthrowing the government through a military coup. Balbay was initially detained on July 1, 2008, brought to Istanbul, and questioned about his news coverage and his relations with the military and other Ergenekon suspects. Police searched his house and the Ankara office of Cumhuriyet, confiscating computers and documents. Released four days later, Balbay was detained a second time in March 2009 and placed at Silivri F Type Prison in Istanbul pending trial. He was moved to solitary confinement in February 2011. His lawyers have filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights alleging violations of due process. Despite being imprisoned, Balbay was elected a parliamentary deputy on the Republican People’s Party ticket in Izmir province in the June 2011 election. The charges against Balbay include being a member of an armed terrorist organization; attempting to overthrow the government; provoking an armed uprising; unlawfully obtaining, using, and destroying documents concerning government security; and disseminating classified information. The charges could bring life imprisonment, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The evidence against Balbay entails documents seized from his property and office, the news stories he produced, wiretapped telephone conversations, and secretly recorded meetings with senior military and government officials. Balbay has denied the government’s accusations. In columns written from prison and in court hearings, he has repeatedly said that the seized notes and recorded conversations related to his journalism. In its indictment, the government said Balbay kept detailed records of his meetings with military and political figures. Authorities alleged Balbay erased the notes from his computer but technicians were able to retrieve them from the hard drive. The notes—some of which dated back to the period before the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won power—show military officials discussing how they can alter Turkish politics. For example, in notes dated April 6, 2003, a general identified as Yaşar asked the columnist: “Tell me, Mr. Balbay, can a coup be staged today with this media structure? It can’t. You cannot do something today without the media backing you. You are the only one entreating secularism. The other papers are publishing photographs of women with covered heads every day, almost trying to make it sympathetic.” In public comments, Balbay said he had been keeping the notes for journalistic purposes, including potential use in a book. He said the government’s indictment quoted excerpts out of context and in a way that made him appear guilty. In the indictment, Balbay was quoted as saying that he erased the files after concluding their use would not be right. Participants in the conversations included İlhan Selçuk, the now-deceased chief editor of Cumhuriyet and an Ergenekon suspect before his death in June 2010; generals Şener Eruygur, Aytaç Yalman, and Şenkal Atasagun; and former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer. The indictment identified Selçuk as a leader of Ergenekon and accused Balbay of acting as secretary in organizing meetings and keeping notes under cover of journalism. Military officials considered Cumhuriyet a favorite because they shared the paper’s positions on secularism and the Kurdish issue. The government also said it found classified documents in Balbay’s possession, including military reports on neighboring countries and assessments on political Islam in Turkey. Balbay said news sources had provided him with the documents and that he was using them for journalistic purposes. Two taped conversations at the gendarmerie headquarters—dated December 23, 2003, and January 5, 2004—were also cited as evidence. The government alleged that, among other topics, Balbay and other participants discussed whether political conditions would allow a coup. Balbay said such discussions were theoretical and constituted no criminal intent. The government also cited Balbay’s news coverage, including a May 2003 story headlined, “The Young Officers Are Restless.” The headline phrase had been used previously in Turkish politics and was seen as code for a potential military coup. The story claimed that Hilmi Özkök, then the military’s chief of general staff, had warned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about perceived anti-military pressure from the ruling Justice and Development Party. Özkök denounced the story as false at the time. Authorities claimed that Balbay’s own notes show that Atilla Ateş, then commander of Turkish land forces, congratulated him for the piece by saying, “You did your duty.” The İKMS Law Firm, which represents Balbay, did not respond to CPJ’s questions seeking further information about Balbay’s defense.being a member of an armed terrorist organizationbeing a member of an terrorist organization