European rights court condemns Turkey over journalists' detention


Strasbourg (France) (AFP)

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday that Turkey abused the rights of two journalists detained in a massive post-coup crackdown in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stands accused of muzzling the press.

The journalists, Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay, were arrested in 2016 and accused of being members of a "terror organisation" run by Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher Erdogan blames for the attempted coup against him in July 2016.

The court ruled that Turkey had abused the men's rights to liberty, security and freedom of expression by detaining them and ordered the state to pay each of them 21,500 euros ($26,500).

Turkish authorities have arrested 55,000 people accused of links to Gulen, with 153 journalists behind bars according to the P24 press freedom group, mostly detained under the post-coup state of emergency.

More than 140,000 people including judges and academics have been sacked or suspended on accusations of supporting Gulen in the crackdown that has sparked heavy criticism from the West.

Altan, an economics professor and journalist, was handed a life sentence in February for his alleged Gulenist links, while prominent columnist Alpay is awaiting trial.

Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled in January that both men should be released on the grounds that their rights had been violated, but lower criminal courts defied the ruling and they were kept behind bars.

On Friday, an Istanbul court ruled that Alpay could be released but confined to his house and forbidden from leaving Turkey.

The European court said in its judgement that Alpay's pre-trial detention "could not be regarded as 'lawful'" and ordered Turkish authorities to release him as soon as possible.

- Criticism 'is not terrorism' -

Their cases have amplified concerns in Turkey about the rule of law under the crackdown, which Ankara says is needed to eradicate Gulen's influence.

Critics, however, say the crackdown has included anyone who dares to criticise Erdogan.

The court said in both rulings that "criticism of governments... should not attract criminal charges for particularly serious offences such as belonging to or assisting a terrorist organisation".

The court covers allegations of rights abuses by any of the 47 governments signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkey ratified the convention in 1954 and is obliged to implement its judgements.

The court has seen a vast increase in its caseload over alleged rights abuses since the coup -- dealing with more than 31,000 applications in 2017 compared to 4,160 a year earlier.

Some 30,000 of the cases were struck out, according to ECHR figures.