By Ece Toksabay and Dasha Afanasieva
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Rights groups accused Turkey's courts of using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent on Wednesday after three journalists were handed life sentences for alleged links to a banned far-leftist organization.
The journalists were among seven defendants sentenced to life in jail on Tuesday in the trial of suspected members of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP), charged with trying to "violently overthrow the constitutional order".
Since coming to power in 2002, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has earned praise for reforms aimed at bringing the EU candidate nation closer to European Union norms and for liberalizing an economy that has seen unprecedented prosperity.
But his government is also accused of trying to tame the media, control the judiciary and smother opposition.
Fusun Erdogan, founder of leftist radio station Ozgur Radyo and a columnist at human rights-focused website Bianet, along with Ibrahim Cicek and Bayram Namaz of far-leftist magazine Atilim, were accused of being among the leaders of the MLKP.
"The court never found any evidence linking Fusun to the party, and has not even searched for such evidence," Fusun's lawyer and sister Zulfu Erdogan told Reuters by phone.
"Fusun is an opposition journalist and has been punished for it ... It's impossible to talk about freedom of expression or press under these circumstances," she said.
The MLKP is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and is suspected of ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group itself designated a terrorist organization by Ankara, the United States and European Union.
Local media reports said the MLKP had claimed responsibility for two bomb attacks this summer on a police station and a local office of the ruling AK Party in Istanbul, attacks which caused damage but no fatalities.
"The sentences passed on the journalists had no connection whatsoever with the profession of journalism, news, commentary or writing," a senior government official told Reuters, when asked about the MLKP case.
"These sentences were passed for completely different acts. You can see that clearly in the verdicts," the official said.
The head of the Council of Europe said in February that Turkey needed to speed up its reforms of legislation including its sweeping anti-terrorism laws, under which dozens of journalists have been jailed in the past.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) says Turkey is holding more journalists in prison than any other country.
The government says most of the detained media workers are being held for serious crimes, such as membership of an armed terrorist group, that have nothing to do with journalism.
Turkey's anti-terrorism laws allow suspects to be detained for lengthy periods before being formally charged. Fusun Erdogan had been held in custody for seven years.
"The length of the journalists' preventive detention is absolutely shameful," Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at RSF, told Reuters, calling for an impartial appeals court review.
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE's representative on media freedom, said Tuesday's sentencing was part of a worrying broader trend.
"It's not the first time the issue of terrorism is used to suppress critical voices," she told Reuters.
"Of course we have to be careful in this. These threats are very present and very realistic but they should never be used to suppress opposing voices ... Yesterday's decision does not give me confidence that they are moving in the right direction."
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Editing by Nick Tattersall)