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Turkey court to rule on freeing Cumhuriyet journalists

© 2017 AFP

28 July 2017

A Turkish court was due Friday to decide whether to release journalists from the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet jailed on charges of supporting "terrorism", in a trial seen as a test for press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The trial in Istanbul of 17 writers, cartoonists and executives from the paper began this week and judges will later make an interim ruling on a request by the defence that they should be freed ahead of the next stage of the trial.

The defendants include some of the biggest names in Turkish journalism including Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, commentator Kadri Gursel, investigative reporter Ahmet Sik and cartoonist Musa Kart.

They are charged with supporting in their coverage three groups that Turkey considers terror outfits -- 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 a coup attempt.

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

Eleven of the suspects have been held in jail in pre-trial detention, most of them for more than eight months, with the other six free but still charged.

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

The hearing got underway with Gursel's lawyer Koksal Bayraktar presenting the case for his release, saying the journalist had been jailed for 271 days and "only he can know what effect this has".

The trial has come to court as concern grows over press freedoms in Turkey under the state of emergency imposed the wake of the 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 is urging Turkey to release "the journalists and others who we believe are being held arbitrarily" under the emergency.

- '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 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.

"And the tyrants should know that no cruelty can prevent the progress of history. Down with tyranny, long live freedom," he added.

On its front page on Friday, Cumhuriyet wrote "Freedom right now", adding: "The decision the court will make today will determine the fate of Turkish democracy."