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Turkish court releases seven Cumhuriyet staff, keeps top journalists in jail

Ozan Kose, AFP | Protesters hold pictures of jailed Cumhuriyet journalists during a demonstration against their arrest outside the courthouse of Istanbul on July 28, 2017.
4 min

A Turkish court on Friday ordered the release of seven people in the trial of staff from an opposition newspaper seen as a test for press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but kept the most prominent journalists in jail.


The hugely controversial trial in Istanbul of 17 writers, cartoonists and executives from the Cumhuriyet daily newspaper on "terror" charges -- ridiculed as absurd by supporters -- began earlier this week.

After five days of intense hearings, the judge ordered that seven suspects, including cartoonist Musa Kart, be released ahead of the next hearing under judicial supervision, meaning they have to report to the authorities regularly.

However the judge also ordered that four other suspects, including the most prominent journalists on trial, should remain in custody.

Those to remain in custody are commentator Kadri Gursel, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, the paper's editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and chief executive Akin Atalay.

Prosecutors meanwhile said they would file new accusations against Sik over an incendiary defence statement he made on Wednesday.

The next hearing was set for September 11.

Those to be released were expected to walk free later from Silviri jail outside Istanbul after completing the prison formalities.

The staff are charged with supporting in their coverage three groups that Turkey considers terror groups -- the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the ultra-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), and the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher who Ankara accuses of ordering last year's coup attempt.

Supporters say the paper has always taken a tough line against the three organisations and is merely being punished for being one of the few opposition voices in the Turkish media.

Many of the suspects, including Gursel and Sabuncu, have already spent over eight months behind bars.

If convicted, they face varying terms of up to 43 years in jail.

"With this decision today they want to say 'we will bring you to your knees'," Sik declared defiantly before being led out. "But they should know -- I have only bowed down in front of my mother and father and it shall remain so."

His wife Yonca shouted: "Stay strong, Ahmet, we will resist and get out of this!"

'Invented from scratch'

Defence lawyer Alp Selek told the packed courtroom earlier he had been working for nearly 60 years but had "never seen an indictment that invented crimes from scratch".

"I have worked in extraordinary circumstances but this is the first time I have seen such an indictment," he said.

The trial comes as concern grows over press freedoms in Turkey under the state of emergency imposed after a failed military coup in July 2016.

According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 166 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of them arrested under the state of emergency, to the alarm of Turkey's Western allies.

"The United States remains seriously concerned about the widespread arrest and pretrial detention that's taking place of individuals in Turkey who have been critical of that government," said US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

She added that Washington was urging Turkey to release "the journalists and others who we believe are being held arbitrarily" under the emergency.

In a rare public intervention, former president Abdullah Gul, whom Erdogan succeeded as head of state in 2014, said that the journalists should be set free while the trial proceeded.

'Long live freedom'

One of Turkey's oldest newspapers, Cumhuriyet ("Republic") has been fiercely critical of Erdogan, causing anger in the halls of power with embarrassing scoops.

Since Monday, journalists from the daily have given powerful testimony, rejecting as absurd the terror charges laid against them.

Sik, one of Turkey's most famous investigative journalists, made a defiant stand in the courtroom on Wednesday, describing what he said was the Erdogan government's past cooperation with the Gulen movement.

"This is not a statement for my defence, because I consider doing so as an insult to journalism and to the ethical values of my profession. Because journalism is not a crime," he said.

In 2011, Sik was imprisoned after writing one of the few full-scale investigations into Gulen's movement.

"We know that what scares the tyrants most is courage," he said. Sik could now face new charges over the statement after the complaint by prosecutors.


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