In what has been hailed as a historic ruling, two prominent Turkish journalists from a leading opposition newspaper were freed from jail in the early hours of Friday after Turkey's top court said their detention had violated their fundamental rights.
The arrest of Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul last November drew international condemnation and revived concern about media freedom in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
They were detained after the publication of video footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency helping send weapons to Syria.
It was one more nail in the coffin as far as Turkish freedom of speech was concerned, with the situation deteriorating drastically since 2013 according to monitoring groups. Dozens of journalists have been jailed — including three members of VICE News staff last year, who were ultimately released — alongside dissident activists and bloggers.
"Sorry for keeping you waiting this long," Can Dundar told reporters waiting outside the prison, next to the journalists' friends and families. "You know, the 26th is President Erdogan's birthday. We are happy to celebrate his birthday with this release decision."
"We think the Constitutional Court's ruling is a historic one," said Dundar. "This verdict has cleared the way not only for us but for all of our colleagues and freedom of press and expression."
The two were charged with intentionally aiding an armed terrorist organization and publishing material in violation of state security. Cumhuriyet published photos, videos, and a report last May that it said showed intelligence officials transporting arms to Syria in trucks in 2014.
Despite their release, the two journalists are still facing possible life sentences at a trial which is due to start on March 25. They are also banned from leaving the country.
Erdogan, who has cast the newspaper's coverage as part of an attempt to undermine Turkey's global standing, said he would not forgive such reporting.
Gul expressed regret that lower courts had not reached a similar verdict to the constitutional court, instead deciding to uphold their detention, reported Hurriyet Daily News. "We have been released but this does not mean that the issue of arrested journalists is over," he said. "We have friends behind bars and our battle needs to continue for them. From now on, this unity should continue in the face of pressures against the press."
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