Turkish court convicts academic on terrorism-related charges based on one-dollar bills, personal notes and tweets

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A Turkish court has convicted Vedat Demir, a professor of communications and former columnist, on terrorism-related charges based on five one dollar bills, personal notes, tweets and conversations and sentenced him to six years, seven months’ imprisonment, according to a report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF).

Demir was detained in July 2016, a couple of days after an abortive putsch, and remained in pre-trial detention for seven months until he was released pending trial. He was accused of being a follower of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He locked up thousands including many prosecutors, judges and police officers involved in the investigations as well as journalists who reported on them.

Erdoğan intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. The crackdown also targeted political opponents of the government, Kurdish activists and human rights defenders, among others. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

In an opinion piece published by the Ahval news website, Demir said he was expecting to be acquitted of the charges given the fact that he wasn’t involved in any wrongdoing and that there was no evidence to prove otherwise. Yet, things changed dramatically when the judges hearing the case were reshuffled and Akın Gürlek, a judge notorious for convicting dissidents, was appointed to his case. Demir says it wasn’t even possible for Gürlek to have read his case file, which was over thousand pages long, before ruling on his case.

Gürlek is known for convicting jailed former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtaş; some members of Academics for Peace, who drew the ire of President Erdoğan by issuing a declaration demanding a peaceful solution to country’s Kurdish question and criticizing Turkish security forces for a heavy-handed response that saw citizens confined under long-lasting curfews in predominantly Kurdish cities under bombardment; and Canan Kaftancıoğlu, one of the most influential figures of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), among others. Gürlek is also known for defying a ruling of the Turkish Constitutional Court which requested that a lower court retry CHP deputy Enis Berberoğlu.

Demir was summarily dismissed from his job at İstanbul University by an emergency decree. He says the university’s president included his name on a list of personnel suspected of ties to terrorist organizations due to his political views, without any administrative or legal procedures, which led to his dismissal.

He later asked the court to inquire why he was dismissed, and the official answer sent by the university to the court said it was based on the “institution’s opinion.” Yet, the court later mentioned Demir’s dismissal by a decree-law as evidence of his “membership in a terrorist organization.”

Following the abortive putsch, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and carried out a massive purge of state institutions under the pretext of an anti-coup fight. More than 130,000 public servants, including 4,156 judges and prosecutors as well as 20,571 members of the armed forces were summarily removed from their jobs for alleged membership in or relationships with “terrorist organizations” by emergency decree-laws subject to neither judicial nor parliamentary scrutiny.

Yarına Bakış, the daily Demir was writing for, was among 164 media outlets shut down by the Turkish government during the state of emergency.

Gulnoza Said, head of Europe and Central Asia Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), criticized the decision on Twitter. She said Demir’s lawyer was not allowed to speak during the hearing, which ended in minutes.

“The proof that Turkish authorities had against Vedat Demir? Five one dollar bills, personal notes, tweets and conversations,” she tweeted. “Having been employed by a shuttered media outlet. That’s the proof for terrorism? No, that’s a new low for you, Turkey.”

The Turkish government claims that followers of the Gülen movement used one dollar bills to send coded messages. Consequently, possession of one dollar bills has been accepted as evidence by the courts, including in the case of NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who was imprisoned for nearly three years on bogus terrorism charges. In 2018 a popular pop singer known as “Mabel Matiz” testified to prosecutors about using one dollar bills in a video clip shot in 2017.

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