A prominent Turkish journalist who was accused of defaming an al-Qaeda-linked radical group that endorsed Osama bin Laden and called for armed jihad and the beheading of Americans has been sentenced to nearly 300 years in prison.
Hidayet Karaca used to run major TV network Samanyolu, which aired coverage critical of the government of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before Karaca’s unlawful imprisonment in December 2014, a move that was described by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as politically motivated. On June 4, 2022 the journalist was sentenced to 297 years, nine months at the end of a trial brought by the government.
According to the ruling, dated November 22, 2022 and issued by the İstanbul 3rd Judgeship of Criminal Enforcement (Istanbul 3.İnfaz Hakimliği), the journalist must serve a total of 318 years, five months in prison when added to his conviction from another bogus case in 2015.
The sentencing sends a chilling message for a press freedom in Turkey, already in shambles, and reinforces the widely held view that negative coverage of jihadist groups aligned with the Erdoğan government is a red line for journalists.
Karaca was kept in jail for one-and-a-half years before the public prosecutor brought charges against him in an indictment filed on July 22, 2016. His trial under case file No.2016/62 was concluded this year with a conviction. The case was launched after the Erdoğan government claimed that Turkish jihadist group Tahşiyeciler, led by Mollah Muhammed (aka Mullah Muhammed el-Kesri; real name Mehmet Doğan), was smeared in a TV series broadcast by Samanyolu TV and that Karaca was responsible for it.
Court document that shows journalist Hidayet Karaca was sentenced to serve 318 years in prison:Hidayet_Karaca_sentencing_tahsiye_Redacted
Mollah Muhammed and his associates faced a crackdown in 2010 and were indicted on counterterrorism charges after the police concluded that the group, monitored since 2000 by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, was getting ready to conduct terrorist attacks. During the raids, police discovered three hand grenades, one smoke bomb, seven handguns, 18 hunting rifles, electronic parts for explosives, knives and a large cache of ammunition in the homes of the suspects.
Hundreds of wiretaps that were collected in the course of the investigation portray a picture that Tahşiyeciler operated as part of global al-Qaeda, raised funds and sent Turkish fighters to join the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Police investigators concluded that “its activities to recruit to people to participate in terrorist acts in the so-called jihadi zone, the way it organizes itself, its purposes and acts which differ significantly from known terrorist organizations are considered to indicate that they are operating as part of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.”
In seized taped recordings that were found during the execution of search warrants, Mollah Muhammed was heard calling for violent jihad: “I’m telling you to take up your guns and kill them,” he said. He also asked his followers to build bombs and mortar shells in their homes and urged the decapitation of Americans, claiming that Islam allows such practices. “If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam,” he stated.
According to Mollah Muhammed, all Muslims were obligated to respond to then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s armed fight. He reiterated his fondness for bin Laden in a live TV interview after his release.
Intercepted email messages also exposed possible hit lists compiled by Tahşiyeciler for future terrorist attacks. The group was interested in businesspeople from the Sabataycılar (a secret Jewish community that follows Sabbatai Sevi and pretends to be Muslim) and other groups. It even collected names from tombstones in the Bülbül Deresi Cemetery where Jews were believed to have been buried.
Although Mollah Muhammed and his associates were indicted and tried, Erdoğan started defending the group in 2014, vouching for the radical imam. The campaign to save the indicted Mollah Muhammed was first launched by the Sabah daily, owned by Erdoğan’s family, on March 13, 2014. An article tried to portray him as a victim. The government claimed that Mollah Muhammed was framed by the Gülen movement, a group that is highly critical of Erdoğan on a range of issues from corruption to Turkey’s arming of jihadist groups in Syria and Libya.
In the end, Erdoğan helped secure the acquittal of Mollah Muhammed and his associates through his loyalist judges and prosecutors, launched a crackdown on journalists who criticized the radical group and even hired a lawyer to file a civil suit in the US against Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been an outspoken critic of radical and jihadist groups, for defaming this fanatic.
The Turkish president’s lawyer, Mustafa Doğan İnal, defended Tahşiyeciler in court. İnal also represented controversial Saudi businessman Yasin Al-Qadi, a close friend of Erdoğan who for years was listed as an al-Qaeda financier by both the UN Security Council sanction committee and the US Treasury.
The Bakirköy 3rd High Criminal Court with a newly appointed panel of judges under the redesigned judiciary acquitted all suspects including Mollah Muhammed and other suspects of al-Qaeda charges on December 15, 2015. Contrary to past actions, the Security General Directorate (Emniyet) also issued a new report whitewashing the activities of the group.
Karaca was one of the journalists who were targeted by the Erdoğan government because his TV network used lines critical of Tahşiyeciler in a TV series. The nearly 300 years’ imprisonment he received for smearing Tahşiyeciler is not the only legal punishment the journalist faces. He has multiple cases that are still ongoing including a coup trial, despite the fact that he was in prison when a coup attempt in 2016 took place.
The case was rife with irregularities and procedural flaws arising from immense government pressure that deprived the journalist of the right to a fair trial. The authorities also cracked down on his lawyers. “I am defending myself under very difficult circumstances. Some of my lawyers have left, some of them were arrested. I could not even find a lawyer to write a petition for me,” Karaca said during a hearing in August 2016.
The case is just one of many that aim to intimidate journalists and discourage them from writing about al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups and their links to the Erdoğan government.
Karaca is an experienced Turkish broadcaster who served as chairman of the Television Broadcasters Association as well as Television Audience Measurement (TİAK). He had worked in the print media for years, serving as bureau representative for the Zaman daily in İzmir and Ankara before accepting a job with the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group in 1999. When he was taken into custody by police officers who raided the television studio where he was working on Dec. 14, 2014, he was the general manager of the network.
Public prosecutor Hasan Yılmaz, an Erdoğan loyalist who launched a criminal investigation of Karaca in 2014 for defamation of Mollah Muhammed and his jihadist comrades, was rewarded by the government and promoted to deputy chief public prosecutor in Istanbul. In 2020 Erdoğan appointed him to the position of deputy justice minister, where he still serves as of the present day.