First Published: 2018-03-09

Turkey newspaper staff back on trial after almost 500 days jail
Total of 17 staff from Cumhuriyet face terror charges in case seen as test of press freedom under Erdogan.
Middle East Online

Officers block access as Unions members, opposition MPs try to make press briefing at Silivri district in Istanbul.

SILIVRI - The trial resumed of staff from Turkey's opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper on Friday, seen as a test of press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with two suspects approaching their 500th day behind bars.

A total of 17 staff from Cumhuriyet (Republic) face terror charges in the case, with most now free pending the conclusion of the trial after a number of conditional releases.

However three senior members of staff -- chairman Akin Atalay, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and investigative reporter Ahmet Sik -- remain in detention to the outrage of supporters.

Sabuncu and Atalay have spent the last 495 days in jail and Sik, who was detained a little after the initial wave of arrests, 434 days.

"End this persecution," said Cumhuriyet in its front page headline.

All three jailed suspects were present as the trial resumed at the courthouse in Silivri outside Istanbul, part of a complex that also contains the prison where they are held.

Also present were the defendants who were released last year after long stints in jail but remain charged, including cartoonist Musa Kart and columnist Kadri Gursel.

The court was expected to rule after 1830 GMT on whether to keep the three detained in jail. A final verdict in the case was not awaited in this hearing.

- 'Unacceptable detention' -

There was tension ahead of the opening of the hearing as anti-riot police with shields prevented supporters from giving statements to media in front of the courthouse.

In the end, some managed to read brief statements in front of the line of police calling for the release of the staff.

"It is unacceptable for journalists to stay in prison that long just because they express their thoughts or publish headlines," Utku Cakirozer, an MP for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said.

Unable to read his statement closer to the courthouse, fellow CHP MP Sezgin Tanrikulu added: "Justice cannot emerge out of this place but we are still here for our friends."

The latest hearing came a day after an Istanbul court sentenced 25 journalists to prison terms of up to seven and a half years over links to the group of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen who is blamed by Turkey for the 2016 failed coup against Erdogan.

The Cumhuriyet staff are charged with supporting through their coverage three organisations Turkey views as terror groups -- the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the ultra-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), and the Gulen movement.

In court various witnesses gave statements, including former Cumhuriyet journalist Altan Oymen who was once briefly a leader of the CHP and rubbished any idea it had backed Gulen.

"The allegations are unimaginable," he said, adding it was Cumhuriyet which had properly reported on the activities of Gulen.

The suspects face up to 43 years in prison if convicted. Supporters say the charges are absurd, noting that the outlawed groups cited in the indictment are themselves at odds with each other.

In a separate development, Turkey's top appeals court quashed the verdict of Cumhuriyet's former editor-in-chief Can Dundar who was sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail on charges of revealing state secrets in 2016.

It ruled he should face an even more serious charge of espionage in a new trial and risk a longer prison term of up to 20 years. Dundar has fled Turkey and is now based in Germany.


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