Turkey on Wednesday began the retrial of the country’s Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative and two other human rights defenders on terror charges that their supporters call “judicial harassment,” Turkish Minute reported, citing Agence France-Presse.
RSF’s Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu and his co-defendants risk being jailed for almost 15 years for joining a campaign to support a newspaper that was shut down in 2016 for having alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants.
The Özgür Gündem paper fell victim to a vicious crackdown President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unleashed against opposition media and his political rivals after he survived a failed coup in July 2016.
The 51-year-old Önderoğlu is being tried together with journalist Ahmet Nesin and Şebnem Korur Fincancı of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.
The three were acquitted of charges of “propagating terrorism” in 2019. An appeals court overturned that ruling last November and ordered a new trial.
Seventeen press freedom and human rights organizations — including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the London-based PEN International — signed a petition demanding the charges be dropped.
The retrial “is a dreadful illustration of the witch-hunt waged by President Erdogan’s government against its media critics,” they said in the joint statement.
“The judicial harassment of Erol is part of a broad crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey,” Article 19 human rights group’s Sarah Clarke said.
Onderoglu told AFP after Wednesday’s opening hearing that the trial would resume in Istanbul on May 6.
“This hearing today is like a Sword of Damocles over my head,” he said.
The campaign in support of Özgür Gündem involved Önderoğlu and dozens of others taking turns editing the paper for a day to help it survive Erdoğan’s crackdown.
The Turkish-language paper was popular in the country’s large Kurdish community but denied links to militants who have been waging an insurgency against the state since 1984.
Tens of thousands have been jailed in Turkey or stripped of their government jobs during Erdoğan’s post-coup crackdown.
The assault on civil liberties has damaged Turkey’s relations with its Western allies and turned Erdoğan into a target of constant criticism from rights groups.
Önderoğlu’s trial is one of several high-profile cases being watched for signs of whether Erdoğan is ready to relent in his attacks on dissent.
Turkey is ranked 154th among 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom’s “Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey” database, 175 journalists are currently behind bars in the county, while 167 are wanted and are either in exile or remain at large.