Turkish court sentences 14 Cumhuriyet daily staff members to prison over terror charges

A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced 14 staff members of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet to prison on terrorism charges and acquitted three, one of their lawyers said, in a case that has sparked global outrage over press freedom under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The court handed down sentences ranging from two-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half years to the Cumhuriyet staff, lawyer Özden Ozdemir told Reuters. Defendant Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, who was accused of having maintained popular Twitter account @Jeansbiri, which was allegedly affiliated with the Gülen movement, got the harshest sentence of 10 years in prison.

According to the Birgün daily, six of them were convicted of “aiding and abetting an armed terrorist organisation” and were given prison terms of up to seven-and-a-half years. Several others were convicted on lesser charges.

Veteran journalist Ahmet Şık, Cumhuriyet daily Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu and columnist Aydın Engin were given seven years, six months, while Cumhuriyet CEO Akın Atalay was sentenced to seven years, three months, 15 days. Publisher Orhan Erinç and columnist Hikmet Çetinkaya got six years, three months and editorial consultant Kadri Gürsel two years, six months. Three other Cumhuriyet employees, Önder Çelik, Hakan Kara, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, received three years, nine months in prison.

The staff of the newspaper –- long seen as a thorn in Erdoğan’s side and one of the few remaining voices critical of the government –- were charged with supporting the Gülen movement. “This was absolutely not a lawful verdict. At the end, it is a political case,” Özdemir said.

The case is one of several high-profile trials seen as emblematic of the broader crackdown since Erdoğan announced a state of emergency following a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The court also ruled that the case against prominent journalist Can Dündar, previously the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, would continue separately, the Cumhuriyet daily reported.

All the convicted defendants, except Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, were released under judicial control. Cumhuriyet CEO Atalay, who was kept in pretrial detention for 542 days, was also released under the same conditions.

Greeted by his wife Adalet and a crowd of supporters shortly after he walked free from prison, Atalay said Cumhuriyet daily would not succumb to pressure or threats. “As we have always said, they cannot intimidate Cumhuriyet newspaper, which will continue to tell the truth to its readers,” he told reporters.

Atalay said they had been taken “hostage” and a “ransom” was demanded for the newspaper. “This newspaper cannot be bought with money … Our colleagues will show them how journalism is done,” he said.

Atalay said that “There are hundreds of journalists, students, academics, public servants, lawyers and many others in prison. They are victims of the ‘victim creation centers’ [the judiciary]. It is everybody’s duty to see them released. I believe it will happen soon. We are close to the dawn after a long night.”

“I’ll go about my business within the boundaries of the law. I’d like to say ‘I’m happy,’ but I can’t be happy. There are many victims in prison. Any human being would be ashamed to be happy under those circumstances,” Atalay said while participating in a “Vigil of Justice” at İstanbul’s Çağlayan Courthouse on Thursday.

“No penalty can stop us from doing journalism. If needed, we will go to prison again but we will continue to do journalism,” said editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, who was among those convicted after the verdict.

Turkey, which has jailed more than 250 journalists and media workers, is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday. If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 259 journalists and media workers were in jail as of April 21, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 200 were under arrest pending trial while only 59 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 141 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down about 200 media outlets after a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

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