Austrian Journalist Max Zirngast May Be Freed

Austrian journalist Max Zirngast was acquitted of all charges at a court in Ankara, Turkey

+++ Update, September 11, 2019, 12:00 +++

Austrian journalist Max Zirngast was acquitted of all charges at a court in Ankara, Turkey. Exactly one year after his arrest for terror-related charges, Zirngast may be released. The acquittal is not yet final — the Turkish chief prosecutor has seven days to appeal — but given that the district prosecutor recommended the acquittal, it is likely to stand.

Joy and relief prevails in Austria – one pressure group jubilantly tweeted “9:40: Acquittal for all,” as three other journalists were also acquitted alongside Zirngast.

Observers assume that silent diplomacy behind the curtains and pressure on Turkey helped to get this outcome. However, for other journalists in Turkey, the situation remains dire. Just last November, Zirngast had penned an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, saying: “My arrest was a perverse confirmation of the authoritarianism [in Turkey], which I’ve been reporting on these last year and against which I was fighting.”

— Original story, April 17, 2019 —

Additional Research by Julia Seidl 

Seven months after his arrest, Austrian reporter Max Zirngast remains in limbo following the cancellation of his April trial date.

Accused of membership in a left-wing terrorist organization, Austrian journalist and political science student Max Zirngast has been denied permission to leave Turkey, where he has been confined since his arrest in September of last year. A trial, scheduled for April 11 in Ankara, Turkey, has now been postponed until September.

Following his arrest, Zirngast was held for over two months in solitary confinement, one of nine Austrians currently being held against their will in Turkey, according to the daily Der Standard. The Austrian government immediately demanded his release. He was finally let out at Christmas time, but required to stay in Turkey and report to the police once a week. “We are doing everything we can,” said Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, responding to criticism in a telephone interview with the Austrian Press Agency (APA). “His family knows this.”

The 30-year-old Styrian native denies the charges, or any knowledge of the party, TKP/K, a splinter group of Marxist communists in Turkey. “I have nothing to do with the organization,” Zirngast said in an interview conducted over SKYPE and aired on ZIB2 April 8. “There is not even any evidence that it still exists […].”  Observers doubt that the splinter group presents any meaningful threat to the Turkish state. However a main-stream communist candidate did win a recent municipal election in the mainly Kurdish Tunceli Province, with 32% of votes cast (Liberation News).

Zirngast believes his arrest was politically motivated. “It is customary in Turkey for such accusations to be misused to criminalize democratic, legitimate opposition,” he said on ZIB2. In the past, Turkey has often taken action against journalists, especially those, like Zirngast, who were reporting about the Kurdish Workers Party PKK. “I am collateral damage,” Zirngast told the Austrian monthly Datum, who visited him in Turkey for a profile published in February. “To say that I am special would be an injustice to all other political prisoners, journalists and academics in Turkey.”

In the event of a conviction, the journalist could face up to 7 1/2 years in prison. Zirngast thinks this unlikely.  Ultimately, he expects an acquittal, “even if it is through the European Court of Human Rights,” he told APA. Because he has been politically active, he says he has always been aware that he could face such charges. “I did it anyway, because I believe it is right.”

While still in prison, Zirngast was awarded the “Dr. Karl Renner – Solidaritätspreis” in Austria, accepted by his mother on his behalf. The president of the Austrian Journalists Club (ÖJC) and jury chairman Fred Turnheim called him the “first Austrian hostage of Erdogan,” and demanded his immediate release. “Journalistic research on AKP and Kurds is not a crime, but the job of journalists,” Turnheim said.

Meanwhile, supporters have launched a website “#FreeMaxZirngast” that tracks his situation and accepts donations. As of this writing, the activist no longer has to report weekly to the police, but is not allowed to leave Turkey until further notice.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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