ISTANBUL (AP) — A Turkish court on Friday ordered the release of four academics accused of spreading "terrorist" propaganda at the opening hearing of one of several trials that have raised concern over Turkey's continuing crackdown on dissenting voices.
The four academics were among a group of more than 1,000 scholars who in January signed a declaration critical of the government's military operations against Kurdish rebels. The declaration angered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and led to legal proceedings against some.
They were arrested after holding a news conference in March during which they stood by the declaration.
The prosecutor said that the academics should be released and tried under an article of the Turkish penal code which makes it illegal to insult the Turkish state, government, people, parliament, judiciary or security forces, according to local media reports.
The law, which was softened in a 2008 amendment following high-profile trials of Turkish writers Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak, requires the approval of the justice minister for a case to be filed.
The court granted the request for the four to be released, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. The defendants — Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya, Kivanc Ersoy and Meral Camci — had been held in a high-security prison in Istanbul since their arrest.
In a separate courtroom also Friday, a closed-door trial resumed for two prominent opposition journalists who are accused of espionage and aiding a terrorist organization for their reports on alleged government arms-smuggling to Syria.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the courthouse in Istanbul to show their support for newspaper Cumhuriyet's chief editor Can Dundar and Ankara representative Erdem Gul, as well as the four academics.
Protesters carried signs calling for an end to "dictatorships in university."
The controversial trials come weeks after Erdogan called for a broader legal definition of "terrorism" and "terrorist" to include activists, journalists and legislators who voice support for terrorism organizations.
Human rights and press freedom groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the limited tolerance of dissent shown by authorities in Turkey, where nearly 2,000 legal cases are open for individuals accused of insulting the Turkish president.
"Journalism can never be described as espionage," said opposition legislator Garo Paylan. "Journalism is about revealing misdeeds by the state and relaying this to the public."
The trial of Dundar and Gul was adjourned until May 6 and Dundar expressed hope the case was nearing acquittal.
Fraser reported from Ankara.