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Turkish reporters go on trial in landmark press freedom case

© AFP/File / by Philippe Alfroy | Can Dundar (R), editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gul (L), his Ankara bureau chief, are due in court in Istanbul on charges of revealing state secrets

ISTANBUL (AFP) - 

Two top Turkish journalists go on trial Friday accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gul, his Ankara bureau chief, are due in court in Istanbul on charges of revealing state secrets "for espionage purposes", seeking to "violently" overthrow the government and aiding an "armed terrorist organisation".

The pair have already spent three months in pre-trial detention over the story in the leading opposition newspaper in May, which accused the government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms to rebels in Syria.

The report sparked a furore, fuelling speculation about the government's role in the Syrian conflict and its alleged ties to Islamist groups in the country.

Erdogan personally warned Dundar he would "pay a heavy price" for the story.

Prosecutors have asked for the journalists to be sentenced to two life terms and 30 additional years.

On February 26, the journalists were released from prison to jubilant scenes after the Constitutional Court -- one of the last Turkish institutions that Erdogan does not have under his full control -- ruled their right to free speech had been violated.

Their release enraged Turkey's leader of the last 13 years, who declared he had "no respect" for the court decision, even threatening the bench with dissolution.

- 'Turkish state on trial' -

Dundar, 54, has vowed to turn his trial on its head by putting the authorities in the dock.

"We are not going to defend ourselves, we will put the crimes of the state on trial," he told a press conference this month.

On Friday, Dundar will publish a new book entitled "Tutuklandik" ("We Have Been Arrested"), in which he promises to reveal how the paper obtained the information about the Turkish weapons deliveries and took the decision to publish it.

The prosecution of the journalists has sparked outrage among opposition and rights groups in Turkey as well as in the West, where it is seen as proof of Erdogan's determination to silence his opponents.

"The trial of Dundar and Gul is a test for the state of law in Turkey," said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"Their release was encouraging but things are only beginning now," he added.

In a letter to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, published in Britain's Guardian newspaper on the eve of the trial, over 100 leading authors, including Canada's Margaret Atwood and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, called for the charges against the journalists to be dropped.

Almost 2,000 people have been prosecuted for "insulting" Erdogan since the former premier became president in August 2014, Turkey's justice minister said earlier this month.

Around that time, the opposition Zaman daily, which is allied to Erdogan's arch-enemy, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, was forcibly placed under state supervision.

"What happened to my newspaper is not an isolated incident, it is part of a continuing trend... of repression on the part of the government," Zaman's foreign editor Mustafa Edib Yilmaz told AFP.

by Philippe Alfroy

© 2016 AFP