Secret Trial Begins of Leading Turkish Journalists Facing Life Sentences For Espionage

The editor-in-chief of Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet says he will use the highly-criticized trial to refocus attention on the story that landed him in the dock.
March 25, 2016, 11:50am
Can Dundar and Erdem Gul arrive at court in Istanbul on March 25, 2016. Photo by Sedat Suna/EPA

Two prominent Turkish opposition journalists have gone on trial and face possible life sentences on charges of espionage, after publishing footage purportedly showing the state intelligence agency sending weapons to Syria. The court ruled on Friday the trial will be held behind closed doors.

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of newspaper Cumhuriyet, told Reuters he would use his trial, which has drawn international condemnation, to refocus attention on the story that landed him in the dock.

Dundar, 54, and Erdem Gul, 49, Cumhuriyet's Ankara bureau chief, stand accused of trying to topple the government with the publication last May of video footage apparently showing Turkey's state intelligence agency overseeing weapons shipments into Syria in 2014.

"We are not defendants, we are witnesses," Dundar said during an interview at his office, insisting he would show the footage in court despite a ban.

"We will lay out all of the illegalities and make this a political prosecution ... The state was caught in a criminal act and it is doing all that it can to cover it up."

During a public session on Friday morning, the 14th Istanbul Criminal Court of Serious Crimes ruled the rest of the proceedings would be carried out in secret, reported local newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. Lawyers representing the defendants had previously demanded a public hearing.

After being arrested in November, Dundar and Gul spent 92 days in jail, almost half of that time in solitary confinement, before the constitutional court ruled last month that pre-trial detention was unfounded because the charges stemmed from their journalism.

Both were subsequently released pending trial, though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he did not respect the ruling that temporarily freed them.

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Opposition politicians, fellow journalists and several European diplomats were part of a more than 100-strong crowd outside the Istanbul courthouse as Dundar arrived on Friday. Some in the crowd chanted "Free press cannot be silenced."

"Today we came here to defend journalism," Dundar said as he entered the building.

Erdogan has acknowledged that the trucks, which were stopped by gendarmerie and police officers on the way to the Syrian border, belonged to the MIT intelligence agency and said they were carrying aid to Turkmens in Syria. Turkmen fighters are battling both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State.

Erdogan has said that prosecutors had no authority to order the trucks be searched and that they were part of what he calls a "parallel state" run by his ally-turned-foe Fethullah Gulen, a United States-based Islamic cleric who Erdogan says is bent on discrediting him and the Turkish government.

The trial comes as Turkey deflects criticism from the European Union and rights groups that say it is bridling a once-vibrant press. Freedom of speech has deteriorated in the country drastically since 2013, with around 30 journalists now in jail.

In August last year, three VICE News journalists were arrested on terrorism charges while reporting on clashes between police and youth members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

While British journalists Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury were released after 11 days, their Iraqi colleague Mohammed Ismael Rasool spent more than four months behind bars, until he was released on bail on January 5. Rasool cannot leave the country and has to report to a police station near his home twice a week.

Related: Freedom of Speech Is Still Deteriorating Drastically in Turkey

"Elsewhere in the world (Dundar and Gul) would be lauded for their efforts to dig into this issue," said Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"They have done their jobs as investigative journalists, serving the public interest in pursuing a story that is significant not just for the country, but the region."

Erdogan has cast the newspaper's coverage as part of an attempt to undermine Turkey's global standing and has vowed that Dundar would "pay a heavy price." A 473-page indictment says the editors aided a "terrorist" network led by Gulen.

**'**We knew the risks of publishing this. If you do journalism in Turkey, you know what can happen with dangerous topics.'

The CPJ's Ognianova said that the trial is part of a "massive crackdown on press freedom," blaming courts' loose reading of terrorism laws and a government hostile to the press.

Authorities this month seized control of Zaman, Turkey's top-selling newspaper, on charges that it funded Gulen's network. A few weeks earlier the pro-Kurdish IMC channel was pulled off the air over allegations of "spreading terrorist propaganda."

Dundar took the helm at Cumhuriyet, which has a circulation of 52,000, last year and worked to overhaul the staunchly secular 92-year-old daily into a left-leaning outlet with more readers.

A new investigative reporting unit he set up unearthed the footage of the purported arms shipment.

Now he faces death threats, an armed guard prowls Cumhuriyet's perimeter and a bomb-suppression blanket sits at the entrance. Photos of potential attackers hang on the wall.

"We knew the risks of publishing this. If you do journalism in Turkey, you know what can happen with dangerous topics," Dundar said in the interview.

"We were arrested for two reasons: to punish us and to frighten others. And we see the intimidation has been effective. Fear dominates. But we actually think we have frightened (the state). Their threats stem from that fear."

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