Turkey frees 7 jour­nal­ists, but oth­ers re­main be­hind bars

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

ISTANBUL — A Turk­ish court or­dered the re­lease Fri­day of seven jour­nal­ists of the op­po­si­tion news­pa­per Cumhuriyet, but left the four most promi­nent ed­i­tors and ex­ec­u­tives in jail, in a sign that the gov­ern­ment re­mains de­ter­mined to pros­e­cute its most vo­cif­er­ous crit­ics.

A to­tal of 17 jour­nal­ists and ex­ec­u­tives from the news­pa­per, and two oth­ers, are be­ing tried on charges of links to ter­ror­ist groups.

The trial has been closely watched as a test case for 50,000 Turks who have been im­pris­oned in a gov­ern­ment crack­down since last year’s failed coup. Tens of thou­sands more Turks have been sus­pended from gov­ern­ment posts.

The de­ci­sion was an in­terim rul­ing af­ter the court heard tes­ti­mony from the de­fen­dants.

The pros­e­cu­tion sug­gested that five men be re­leased but called for the most se­nior man­agers to re­main in de­ten­tion in view of the se­ri­ous­ness of their al­leged crimes. The trial is to re­sume on Sept. 11.

“Don’t worry about us,” Akin Ata­lay, the news­pa­per’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, called to sup­port­ers and col­leagues who have been pack­ing the court­room for the five days of hear­ings.

“We’re stand­ing firm,” he said, in com­ments trans­lated and dis­sem­i­nated through a mes­sag­ing ap­pli­ca­tion by a team from the news­pa­per.

The four who re­main de­tained are Ata­lay; Mu­rat Sabuncu, the ed­i­tor-in-chief; Kadri Gursel, a se­nior colum­nist and ad­viser to the board; and Ah­met Sik, an out­spo­ken in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter.

They are charged with aid­ing sev­eral ter­ror­ist groups and hav­ing an ed­i­to­rial pol­icy that fa­vored the groups. In their de­fense, the jour­nal­ists and man­agers said dur­ing the hear­ings that they had had min­i­mal con­tact with sus­pects and only in the course of their jour­nal­is­tic work.

“This ver­dict here to­day says, ‘We will make you kneel,’ ” Sik called out to col­leagues and re­porters. “Up un­til to­day I only bow my head to kiss the hands of my Mum and Dad, and it will be the same af­ter to­day.”

The de­ci­sion was more or less ex­pected, and was greeted with mixed feel­ings by fam­ily mem­bers and col­leagues.

“We will keep work­ing un­til we get them all back,” Elif Gu­nay, the daugh­ter of one of the re­leased de­fen­dants, wrote on the same mes­sag­ing ap­pli­ca­tion.

But a se­nior colum­nist, Ay­din En­gin, who has been run­ning the news­pa­per since their ar­rests, said it would be a strug­gle for the pa­per to sur­vive. “It is very dif­fi­cult to go on” with­out those “key peo­ple,” he said. “For nine months I was try­ing to take on their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, but I am 76 and it is very dif­fi­cult.”

Ata­lay in his tes­ti­mony on Mon­day ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan of try­ing to si­lence the pa­per or seize con­trol of it. And he chal­lenged the very premise of the trial. One of the main charges is that he and his col­leagues had changed the ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tion of the news­pa­per, which, he said bluntly, the court had no busi­ness to ques­tion.

Cumhuriyet, founded 93 years ago, is the old­est daily news­pa­per in Turkey, and nearly as old as the repub­lic it­self. Run by a foun­da­tion, it has a strong rep­u­ta­tion of in­de­pen­dent re­port­ing, and its re­porters and colum­nists have been in prison many times over the years for break­ing gov­ern­ment or mil­i­tary taboos.

Turkey was no­to­ri­ous for be­ing the world’s lead­ing jailer of jour­nal­ists in the 1990s, but for a decade that be­gan in 1998 the coun­try and later Er­do­gan’s Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party, or AKP, be­gan re­form­ing its ways. By 2008 only one jour­nal­ist was be­hind bars.

In July 2008, though, the gov­ern­ment ac­cused a shad­owy na­tion­al­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion of plot­ting a coup and be­gan a se­ries of pros­e­cu­tions that led Turkey once more to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and me­dia op­pres­sion. That has ac­cel­er­ated since the coup at­tempt in July 2016.

Ac­cord­ing to the Com­mit­tee for Pro­tec­tion of Jour­nal­ists, 81 jour­nal­ists were im­pris­oned in Turkey in De­cem­ber 2016. The num­ber to­day is at least 150, Sik said in his de­fense Wed­nes­day.

Sik de­liv­ered an im­pas­sioned tirade, the writ­ten text of which was pub­lished by PEN In­ter­na­tional, against both the Fe­tul­lah Gulen move­ment, blamed for or­ches­trat­ing last year’s failed coup, and Er­do­gan’s in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment, which has ar­rested and sus­pended tens of thou­sands of plot sus­pects since the coup.

“This war is not for democ­racy and a clean so­ci­ety, nor for peace or civ­i­liza­tion, as some­body claimed,” he said. “They are just fight­ing to be the owner of the state.”

The pros­e­cu­tor lodged a com­plaint with the judge that Sik’s com­ments, far from a de­fense, rep­re­sented a rep­e­ti­tion of the crimes of which he is ac­cused.

Sik pointed out that he had been im­pris­oned in 2011 for ex­pos­ing the work­ings of the Gulen move­ment and its in­fil­tra­tion of state in­sti­tu­tions, and now is be­ing pros­e­cuted for be­ing al­lied with the move­ment.

A group of in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions sup­port­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion and pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ists, in­clud­ing PEN In­ter­na­tional and the In­ter­na­tional Press In­sti­tute, which mon­i­tored the trial, raised con­cerns that the Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties had failed to con­duct a proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion and that the in­dict­ment re­lied on fac­tual er­rors.

News re­ports were mis­char­ac­ter­ized and pros­e­cu­tors re­lied on ex­perts whose qual­i­fi­ca­tions seemed ques­tion­able, a group state­ment is­sued by the press in­sti­tute said.

“This case should not have been brought and should be with­drawn fully and with­out de­lay,” it con­cluded.

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