ISTANBUL (AP) — A media advocacy group on Monday accused Turkey's president of trying to silence the country's main opposition newspaper and the free press generally, as the second hearing in the trial of staff members of the paper began Monday.
Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, called the case against Turkey's pro-secular Cumhuriyet newspaper "a mockery of justice."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "succeeded in suppressing pluralism and free press in this country. There are only a few remaining free media and we have to defend them," he said.
Deloire spoke to The Associated Press outside Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul where five Cumhuriyet employees are being held in pre-trial detention. Among the jailed are editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and columnist Kadri Gursel, who have been in prison for 316 days, as well as investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, in prison for 255 days.
Prosecutors have charged 19 employees of the paper with "sponsoring terror organizations," including Kurdish militants, a far-left group and the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government blames for a failed coup last year. Gulen denies any involvement.
Emre Iper, a jailed accountant for Cumhuriyet, denied during his testimony Monday that he had downloaded ByLock — an encrypted messaging application allegedly used by Gulen's network. He also rejected claims that he supported the coup through tweets. His case was recently added to this trial.
"I'm not a terrorist. No Cumhuriyet staff is a terrorist," he said.
Columnist Gursel said his defense in the first hearing in July during which he had refuted accusations that he had communicated with ByLock users was largely ignored. He said the additional 45 days in prison since then violated his right to a fair trial and he was jailed because of his stance as an independent and critical journalist.
Outside the courthouse, Nabi Avci, a lawmaker from the ruling Justice and Development Party, said the court should, "in cases where there is no need for arrest," consider trying journalists and writers without jailing them, according to private Dogan news agency.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency said the defendants are facing various charges with jail sentences ranging from seven to 43 years in prison.
More than 50,000 people have been jailed in the aftermath of the bloody July 15, 2016, coup attempt for alleged links to Gulen and other terror groups. But critics say the crackdown has been widened to quash opposition voices, including journalists, activists and parliamentarians who have been put behind bars.
Ali Seker, a parliamentarian from the main opposition Republican People's Party, said the judiciary in Turkey is not independent and he doesn't have much hope. He told the AP: "Here decisions are made according to instructions sent from the palace," referring to Erdogan.
Cumhuriyet employees and supporters gathered outside the Silivri prison courthouse, holding the paper's bearing the headline "We want justice."
The newspaper's Ankara representative, Erdem Gul, told the AP that Turkey "holds a record for imprisoned journalists," with some 170 media workers behind bars.
"But despite everything, we will continue our journalism," he said.
The government insists that none of the accused is in prison for journalistic work, arguing that they are behind bars for various crimes, including terrorism.
Gul is on trial in a separate case, accused of espionage and aiding Gulen's network, for a 2015 story alleging that Turkey's intelligence service was smuggling arms to Syria. He accused the government of labeling all opposition as terrorists.
"It is journalism, freedom of thought and expression that are on trial," Gul said.
Seven Cumhuriyet staff members, including cartoonist Musa Kart, were released from pre-trial detention in July. Two people are being tried in absentia.
Also being tried along with the Cumhuriyet staff is Kemal Aydogdu, who is not related to the newspaper but is suspected of using a Twitter handle critical of the government. He is accused of being a "manager" in a terror group, according to Anadolu, and is being held in custody.