The judge who acquitted gendarmerie intelligence officers of falsifying documents in order to illegally wiretap the telephone of Turkish investigative journalist Mehmet Baransu was promoted by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
According to documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, the gendarmerie officers who were indicted for forging documents to obtain a wiretap warrant for Baransu, a reporter with the liberal Taraf daily, which was shut down by the government in July 2016, were acquitted by a panel of judges led by Fikret Demir in 2015. The Erdoğan government rewarded Demir for acquitting the officers and had the judicial council assign him to the Supreme Court of Appeals in 2018.
According to the indictment, the case is clearly open-and-shut given the substantial evidence in the file from the forged papers submitted to the court as well as statements provided by both suspects and witnesses. In the decision to acquit, Judge Demir did not question the authenticity of the evidence yet decided to acquit suspects nonetheless.
The case originated on June 18, 2009 when gendarmerie intelligence officer Chief Sgt. Cengiz Özbudak, the intelligence unit team leader, submitted a wiretap request to a court in Istanbul, listing the target only by the code name “Baran” and identifying him as a suspect who was linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Özbudak neither disclosed the full name of the journalist nor provided his phone number. Instead Baransu’s 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) code — a number assigned to all cell phones for identification – was written in the request form to escape scrutiny from the judge who might be alerted given the prominence of Baransu. The request was approved by Özbudak’s superior officer, Maj. Atilla Hakan Erdoğan, the head of the intelligence department in the Istanbul Gendarmerie Command, and the number ISTH 2000-64795-9/TER.OL.KS./BÖF was assigned to the document that was submitted to the court as supporting evidence.
Presented with an incomplete request in which the suspect was not identified by his full name and which stated that a wiretap was required for further investigation, the Istanbul 9th High Criminal Court authorized the warrant for three months. At the time Baransu had been publishing a series of breaking news stories in Taraf, exposing clandestine and illegal schemes plotted by some generals in the Turkish military, which quickly consumed the public agenda. It looked like the generals who were exposed wanted to identify the journalist’s sources within the military and made up a bogus wiretapping request on terrorism charges in order to eavesdrop on his conversations.
His phones were monitored by gendarmerie noncommissioned officer Chief Sgt. Emre Cingöz until August 15, 2009. Although the phone conversations did not reveal any links to a terrorist group and by law Cingöz was obliged to inform his superiors and cease the wiretapping, the records show that no such action was taken by Cingöz, suggesting that he was also part of the gang that wanted to record the journalist’s conversations and identify his contacts.
A wiretapping scandal was exposed after Baransu published documents on January 7, 2009 detailing how he was illegally wiretapped by the military, not in Istanbul but in the eastern province of Van, where another team of gendarmerie officers wiretapped not only his phone under a fake name but also that of his wife under a similar scheme. Baransu claimed that the decision to monitor his calls came from the top, then-Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ. Following the complaint by the journalist, a prosecutor’s office launched investigation into the allegations.
According to the information provided by the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), the agency authorized coordination of the wiretapping for the law enforcement agencies, on July 21, 2011. Baransu’s IMEI number was also approved for a wiretap in Istanbul. When the illegal wiretapping in Istanbul was exposed during the investigation in Van province, a public prosecutor in Istanbul decided to indict all three gendarmerie officers on multiple charges that included violation of the privacy of communications, forgery of official documents and abuse of power.
However, the falsified documents that were submitted by the gendarmerie in the evidentiary file to secure the wiretap warrant mysteriously went missing both from the court archive and the archives of the Istanbul gendarmerie intelligence department. Somebody was running a cleanup operation to destroy the evidence and prevent the case from moving forward.
Nevertheless, a paper trail that included a cover letter which made reference to the missing documents was still in the court case file and the suspects admitted that if the cover letter included such a reference, the document must have been written before the filing with the court. Yet, they denied any knowledge of what happened to the original document that alleged Baransu was a suspect connected to the PKK.
Suspect Cingöz told the prosecutor that he realized the journalist had nothing to do with the PKK after he had listened to his conversations and verbally informed his superiors. Yet he was asked by his superiors to continue to eavesdropping and record the journalist’s phone conversations, according to his testimony. He said he made a second appeal to his commanding officer to make a note that Baransu had no links to the PKK, and the wiretapping was halted two months later.
Testifying as a witness in the case, Muharrem Demirkale, a team leader in the intelligence section, stated that he immediately ordered an end to the wiretapping as soon as he was informed by Cingöz that the suspect was in fact a journalist named Mehmet Baransu. He also said he dismissed Özbudak from his position for dereliction of duty and operating outside the chain of command.
The trial of the three suspects took place at the Istanbul 19th High Criminal Court under case No. 2013/307 and continued until 2015. The proceedings took a turn when Erdoğan consolidated his grip on the judiciary with a series of legislative changes and the election of members to the then-Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) in the fall of 2014. The presiding judge, Demir, and two other judges in the case, Selahaddin Elitaş and Aydın Uyan, unanimously ruled to acquit all three suspects of all charges after this major change in the Turkish judiciary.
Judge Demir was rewarded for his services to the Erdoğan government by a promotion to the Supreme Court of Appeals. Judge Elitaş, who helped Erdoğan free many suspects in December 2013 corruption cases that involved multi-billion dollar bribery in Iran sanctions evasion schemes was also promoted. Elitaş was a dissenting judge in the 2016 conviction of known mafia leader Galip Öztürk, an Erdoğan ally. Uyan was also promoted in 2018 by the HSYK for issuing verdicts in line with the Erdoğan government.
The case in Van was also thwarted by the Erdoğan government although similar crimes were committed there as well. The phone of both Baransu and his wife were wiretapped in Van province under fake names.
In the meantime, Baransu has been behind bars since March 2015 on dubious charges and faces nearly a thousand years in prison as part of scores of cases concocted by the Erdoğan government in order to silence the country’s best investigative journalist.
Turkish prosecutor Hacı Hasan Bölükbaşı indicted Baransu on charges that he reported on the Dec. 17 and 25 corruption and bribery investigations, which implicated four former ministers and former state-lender Halkbank CEO Süleyman Arslan. In the indictment, the reports by Baransu on the four ex-ministers — Zafer Çağlayan, Egemen Bağış, Muammer Güler and Erdoğan Bayraktar as well as Aslan — who were all suspects in the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption investigations, were considered offensive material.