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Turkish Court Convicts 13 From Cumhuriyet Newspaper on Terrorism Charges

Security was tight this week in Istanbul for the trial of journalists and managers from Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest independent newspaper. Credit Yasin Akgul/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ISTANBUL — A Turkish court convicted 13 employees of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest independent newspaper, of terrorism-related crimes on Wednesday, and handed down stiff sentences for several of them even while ordering the release of the newspaper’s chief executive.

The defendants — journalists, managers and two lawyers, most of whom had been released from jail during the monthslong trial — received sentences of two to seven years in prison, but they will remain free while their cases are appealed.

The chief executive, Akin Atalay, the executive chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, which manages the newspaper, was the last of the group still in jail. The court ordered his release on Wednesday evening, but he was barred from traveling abroad.

Mr. Atalay, along with several other defendants, was acquitted of a charge of misuse of authority but convicted of helping terrorist organizations. Supporters and press freedom groups denounced the verdicts as travesty of justice.

Despite the court’s ruling, the journalists remained defiant. “This neither scares me nor Cumhuriyet newspaper,” Murat Sabuncu, the newspaper’s editor in chief and one of those convicted, said in a statement after the verdict.

“I see this as an attack against us and against all the journalism community, against all our colleagues for us not to practice journalism in Turkey, to be scared while doing it,” Mr. Sabuncu added. “We can go to jail one more time if necessary. We will go on doing journalism with courage.”

The defendants convicted on Wednesday were part of a larger group of 18. Three were acquitted, and the cases of two others — as well as two not associated with the newspaper — will continue.

The case against Cumhuriyet began in 2016, as part of the widespread government crackdown against dissent in the aftermath of the failed coup in July of that year. Twelve of the group were arrested in early-morning police raids on their homes on Oct. 31, 2016.

The defendants were charged with lending support to several terrorist organizations, including the movement of an Islamist cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the failed coup of 2016 from exile in the United States; the Kurdish separatist movement; the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; and an extreme-left party known as the DHKP-C.

Prosecutors accused members of the group of helping terrorist organizations, through telephone and internet contacts, and in some cases through an encrypted telephone application called ByLock. The executives and board members were also accused of changing the editorial direction of the newspaper to support the groups.

The prosecutors had demanded lengthy prison sentences for all the defendants, ranging from seven years to 43 years.

The defendants and the management of Cumhuriyet denied all the charges and have accused the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of organizing a political trial to silence its critics.

Defending themselves against the charges, some of the journalists offered examples of their work to show that they had been critical of the same organizations they were accused of supporting.

Mr. Atalay had been in detention for more than 17 months, including months of pretrial detention. Mr. Sabuncu, the editor in chief, and the others were released at different stages during the trial, which began last July.

Their lengthy pretrial detention — it took prosecutors nine months to produce an indictment — and the lack of convincing evidence supporting the charges, led to accusations from the journalists, their lawyers and press freedom organizations that the trial was politically motivated.

In a statement before the verdict was announced, the Vienna-based International Press Institute said Cumhuriyet and its journalists were prosecuted because they critically reported on the activities of Turkey’s government and the governing Justice and Development Party.

“Prosecutors have produced no concrete evidence for the charges of links to terrorist organizations,” Caroline Stockford, the press institute’s coordinator for Turkey, said in the statement. “Anything other than a complete acquittal and compensation for the defendants for the violation of their rights will be an outright injustice.”

In their statements in court on Wednesday, the defendants expressed a determination to continue their work as journalists.

“We, Cumhuriyet, will never give up resisting against evil, which is the reason of our existence,” Mr. Atalay said.

Kadri Gursel, a senior columnist and an adviser to the newspaper’s board, said: “We were arrested because we are journalists and exercise journalism. We will continue to exercise our profession no matter how hard it is to do so in the absence of law and justice.”

Musa Kart, the newspaper’s cartoonist, said, “With this trial, months have been stolen from our lives, but they cannot steal our hopes for a better future for our country.”

There are about 160 journalists currently behind bars in Turkey, most of them detained in a government crackdown that closed 170 news media outlets in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt.


(c) 2018 The New York Times

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