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Turkey court jails top journalists for life over coup links

They were all convicted of seeking to usurp the constitutional order in Turkey.

A woman holds a copy of Turkish pro-government daily newspaper
A woman holds a copy of Turkish pro-government daily newspaper
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

A TURKISH COURT has jailed three prominent journalists for life over links to the group blamed for the 2016 failed coup, a verdict that raised new alarm over freedom of expression under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Veteran journalists and writers Nazli Ilicak and the brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan were handed the life sentences at a trial in Istanbul over alleged connections to the outlawed group of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Similar sentences were given to three other suspects.

They were all convicted of seeking to usurp the constitutional order in Turkey.

Gulen, who built up substantial influence in Turkey through media, education and banking interests before falling out with the authorities in 2013, denies having links to the coup bid.

The ruling came as Turkey freed German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, the correspondent of the Die Welt daily, who had been held for more than a year without charge in a separate case.

According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 156 jailed journalists in Turkey, most of whom were held in the mass crackdown after the failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan.

‘Disregard for the rule of law’

The International Press Institute (IPI) said it was “appalled” at the verdict, describing it as in “utter disregard for the rule of law”.

“This is a dark day for press freedom and for justice in Turkey,” said Gauri van Gulik, Europe Director for Amnesty International, adding the move had “drained the joy” from the Yucel release.

In a joint statement, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, and Harlem Desir, the OSCE representative on media freedom, said the terms “represent an unparalleled level of suppression of dissenting voices in Turkey”.

Speaking in Ankara hours before the verdict was delivered, the head of a top European rights watchdog expressed concern over the arrests of journalists, MPs, mayors and activists since the coup.

Turkey - Trial of Journalist Activists release balloons as they gather outside the court in Istanbul, Monday, July 24, 2017, protesting against the trial of journalists. Source: Can Erok via PA

“The result of casting the net too widely is to spread a chilling effect across society as a whole,” said Council of Europe chief Thorbjorn Jagland.

Ilicak, 73, was one of the very first journalists arrested in July after the coup bid. Briefly an MP from 1999, she wrote for several dailies including Hurriyet.

Ahmet Altan, 67, is a novelist and journalist who has written for some of Turkey’s leading dailies including Hurriyet and Milliyet. He founded the now-closed opposition daily Taraf.

Mehmet Altan, 65, has written books on Turkish politics. Both were detained in early September although Ahmet Altan was released in mid-September before rapidly being re-arrested.

In the same case, the court gave life sentences to former Zaman newspaper marketing manager Yakup Simsek, police academy instructor Sukru Tugrul Ozsengul and Zaman layout designer Fevzi Yazici.

The Altan brothers and Ilicak are also accused of appearing together on a TV show on a pro-Gulen channel just before the coup bid and issuing a message that the attempted overthrow was in the offing.

‘Decisions are binding’

Mehmet Altan was in January ordered to be freed by the Constitutional Court on the grounds his rights had been violated. But the ruling was not implemented by the criminal courts in a move that outraged supporters.

The failure to release Mehmet Altan and fellow writer Sahin Alpay — who is being tried in a separate case — raised new alarm over the rule of law in Turkey.

Jagland praised the Constitutional Court’s ruling and warned: “These decisions are binding. This is guaranteed by the Turkish Constitution. Other courts must abide by them.

After the jail sentences were announced, the CoE’s spokesperson asked in a statement: “Why is evidence that is judged insufficient by the highest Turkish court to justify pre-trial detention now deemed sufficient for a life sentence?”

In another prominent process seen as a test case for press freedoms, 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from the opposition Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) daily remain on trial on charges of supporting terror groups.

Three of the suspects are still behind bars, including investigative reporter Ahmet Sik. The next hearing in that case is on 9 March.

- © AFP, 2018

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