Turkey seeks long jail terms for opposition daily journalists

Stuart WILLIAMS
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Cumhuriyet Daily newspaper Editor-in-chief Can Dundar (C), pictured during a meeting in 2016, was handed a five-year-and-10-month jail term and has now fled Turkey for Germany

Turkish prosecutors said Tuesday that they were seeking jail terms of up to 43 years for 19 journalists and employees of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, in a case that has intensified concerns about press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The journalists, most of whom have been held in jail for the last five months, are accused of membership in a banned "terror group" and aiding outlawed organisations.

Turkey's oldest national daily, the staunchly secular Cumhuriyet has been a thorn in Erdogan's side in recent months as the president seeks to expand his powers in an April 16 referendum.

Its former editor in chief, Can Dundar, was last year handed a five-year-and-10-month jail term and has now fled Turkey for Germany over a front-page story accusing the government of sending weapons to Syria.

The indictment by Istanbul prosecutors, which has taken five months to produce, accuses Cumhuriyet of being under the control since 2013 of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher blamed for the failed coup attempt last July.

It also accuses the paper of cooperating with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as well as ultra-leftist militants.

Several of the suspects are accused of using a messaging app called Bylock that Turkey says was used to orchestrate the failed coup.

- Sharp critics of Gulen -

Those held under arrest include some of the biggest names in Turkish journalism, including the paper's current editor in chief, Murat Sabuncu; commentator Kadri Gursel; writer Ahmet Sik; cartoonist Musa Kart; and Dundar himself.

Prosecutors want Sabuncu and Gursel to face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty while the paper's chairman, Akin Atalay, faces up to 43 years, according to the indictment.

Kart faces up to 29 years and Sik, an expert on the Gulen movement who wrote a book sharply critical of its operations, up to 15.

Dundar, who also faces up to 15 years in jail, denounced the charges on his Germany-based Turkish news website Ozguruz.

"How can a prosecutor rule on the editorial policy of a newspaper?" he asked.

He said that Cumhuriyet has long warned of the dangers of Gulen's organisation and that prosecutors would not find a "shred of support" for the group in its writings.

Since the arrests, Cumhuriyet has continued to keep the sections of the jailed columnists but with a blank space, since they are not allowed to write in prison.

Of the 19 suspects in the case, 12 are behind bars pending trial, two are on the run and the rest are free on caution.

According to the P24 press freedom website, there are 141 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were detained as part of the state of emergency imposed after the failed coup.

- German gets consul visit -

Another prominent figure held behind bars is the Turkey correspondent of Germany's Die Welt newspaper, Deniz Yucel, who was jailed in February on terror charges and is also awaiting trial.

The German consul in Istanbul, Georg Birgelen, on Tuesday made the first consular visit to Yucel since his detention on February 14, the German foreign ministry's state secretary Michael Roth told reporters in Istanbul.

Roth said that Yucel was "doing well under the circumstances" but that solitary confinement at the Silviri jail outside the city was weighing on him.

He expressed regret that the visit -- which came after weeks of pressure from Berlin -- was a one-off with no guarantee of further consular access.

Critics have accused the government of using the state of emergency to crack down on all forms of opposition, but the Turkish authorities insist that those held are jailed for crimes other than their journalism.