Turkish waiting game for detained Austrian journalist

How long will legal limbo last for three charged with membership in non-existent terror group? That depends on what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hopes to achieve.

In the pre-dawn hours of September 11, Turkish anti-terror units burst into the Ankara flat of Austrian journalist and scholar Max Zirngast and took him into custody, while authorities across town detained two Turkish citizens, Mithatcan Türetken and Hatice Göz.

Police found Marxist literature in Zirngast’s flat, including works by well-known Turkish communist Hikmet Kıvılcımlı, and later charged the trio with membership of the banned Turkish Communist Party (TKP)/Kıvılcım. Zirngast, police said, was the group’s Ankara leader.

“We don't have any information concerning the TKP/Kıvılcım organisation actively functioning in Turkey,” said their lawyer Murat Yılmaz.

An internet search for TKP/Kıvılcım turns up very few results prior to the Turkish prosecutor announcing the changes against Zirngast, Türetken and Göz. Courts in Ankara and Adana have argued that no such organisation exists, and the group does not appear on the Ministry of Interior’s list of banned terrorist organisations. Yılmaz’s defence will be that the trio cannot be members of a non-existent organisation. “The prosecutor must prove the allegation of membership,” he said.

But the judge determined convictions were likely in the case and that the defendants thus posed a flight risk. As a result, they remain in pre-trial detention, a sort of legal limbo in Turkey that can last years because such investigations have no time limit.

Türetken and Göz are avowed members of the Social Freedom Party (TÖP), which said their arrest was part of a government effort to curb socialist political activity. The party also says that, just prior to the detentions, it had begun the process of gaining legal status and participating in elections.

Zirngast, who has lived in Turkey since 2015 and recently earned his master’s degree in political science from Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, had written for the (TÖP) newspaper but was not a member of any socialist party.

In recent years he had written for a variety of news outlets, often critically of Erdoğan. His latest piece for UK-based Jacobin called Turkey’s June presidential election, which Erdoğan won, “illegitimate”. Zirngast had lectured about Kıvılcımlı as part of a university course about Turkish political ideologies.

“It isn’t illegal to read or conduct a study on Hikmet Kıvılcımlı,” said Yılmaz, who has argued several similar cases. “The problem is the state itself - in order to pressure its opponents, the state criminalises certain acts and situations.”

As of early October, 174 journalists are behind bars in Turkey, according to the Turkish Media Watchdog P24, Platform for Independent Journalism. Nearly 150 more journalists have been charged with crimes, and more than 150 media outlets have been shuttered by Erdogan’s government.

Last month, Ankara shut down pro-socialist Hayatın Sesi TV. The owner and manager were charged with supporting the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Islamic State and sentenced to more than three years in prison. Just this week, a Turkish appeals court upheld the life sentences given to journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak, on charges of links to the 2016 coup attempt.

Fearing a similar sentence for Zirngast, his Austrian friends have launched a campaign to fight what it sees as bogus allegations and demand his release. They are planning events, letters, protests, and more.  

“We are convinced that appeasement politics will not help Max,” said Joan Adalar, a friend of Zirngast and a reporter for re:volt. She pointed to the Twitter handle @freemaxzirngast. “We want to create a steady campaign that directly supports Max, and other imprisoned journalists and activists in Turkey, creating public visibility and constant political pressure.”

Zirngast sent a message to the campaign this week, after three weeks in jail. "I'm in prison here as a European socialist, researcher, writer and student,” he wrote. “But there are also many prisoners from Turkey here. Comrades, parliamentarians and even mayors. My situation is nothing special in this regard.”

Indeed it is not just journalists and activists, lawyers also face Ankara’s wrath. Last month, the Ankara prosecutor’s office made a request that Zirngast’s attorney, Tamer Doğan, be removed from the case because of a lawsuit filed against Dogan in Istanbul in March 2016.

Dogan had been taken into custody after a protest along with 30 other attorneys of the Association of Lawyers for Freedom and charged with making propaganda for the PKK. The judge granted that request, which is why Yılmaz is now representing the accused.

Zirngast’s detention underscores not only Turkey’s broad crackdown on critics and frequent jailing of journalists - 73 in 2017, again topping the globe - but also its more recent practice of detaining foreigners to gain diplomatic leverage.

“The Turkish government could choose to escalate the crisis into yet another case of hostage diplomacy ... as we have seen with the case of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, and a former member of the Turkish parliament.

Brunson, detained in Turkey for nearly two years, is at the centre of an ongoing U.S.-Turkey row. President Donald Trump has called for his release while Erdoğan has demanded the U.S. extradite Turkish imam and alleged coup plotter Fethullah Gülen. Turkey’s president has refused to budge on the issue, though The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Ankara might free Brunson this month.

“Although Erdogan's hostage diplomacy has made irreparable damage to Turkey's global image, the Turkish president believes that it provides him leverage in bilateral relations and popularity at home,” explained Erdemir.

The Austrian government has demanded an explanation for Zirngast’s detention, or his release. Tensions between the two countries have been high since Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took power last December in a coalition with the Freedom Party, making Austria the only European Union country with a far-right party in power.

Erdoğan did not appear to appreciably improve Turkey's frayed relations with the EU during his recent visit to Austria's neighbour, Germany, which he accused of harbouring thousands of terrorists.

Vienna, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has opposed Turks and Muslims on a range of issues, including immigration, Turkey’s EU membership bid, and banning the full veil in public. In April, Turkey’s EU Minister Ömer Çelik said Austria’s stance toward Turkey has “turned from oppositional to hostile”. Two weeks later, Erdoğan warned that Austria would “pay a price” for barring Turkish officials from campaigning in the country.

Some observers believe Zirngast’s detention may be that price. How long it lasts will come down to the campaign to free him, his lawyer’s defence, and most importantly, the whims of Turkey’s leader.

“Under Erdogan's one-man rule, hostage diplomacy has become a mainstream modus operandi of Turkish foreign policy,” said Erdemir. “In the latest spat with Austria, it will again be Erdoğan, and not Turkish courts, to have the final say concerning Zirngast.”  

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.