A court in Istanbul has ruled that well-known Turkish journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül will stand trial behind closed doors on controversial charges of espionage and divulging state secrets.
The trial was first closed to the public, then adjourned until April 1st.
Dündar, editor-in-chief of the leading opposition daily Cumhuriyet and Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, face life sentences for publishing a story that said Turkey was delivering arms to Islamist rebels in Syria.
Dundar has been sentenced to life on the charge of espionage – and has vowed to do his utmost to make the wrongdoings of the Turkish government the focus of his Friday trial, effectively turning the tables.
Like others in recent years, Dundar, 54, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul, 49, stand accused of trying to topple the government, something they allegedly attempted to do by publishing last May a video purporting to reveal truckloads of arms shipments to Syria overseen by Turkish intelligence.
Erdogan did admit to the trucks belonging to the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), but said they were carrying weapons for the Turkmens – the group fighting both Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). He added that the prosecution had no right to peer into the trucks, and that the whole thing was set up to discredit his administration.
Dundar threatened to show the tape in court, knowing the risks involved. It did not pan out according to plan, and has resulted in the punishment he received Friday morning – that he will not see an open trial. In addition, the courts decided that Erdogan will act as a co-plaintiff in the trials, Reuters learned from a witness.
“We are not defendants, we are witnesses,” he told Reuters in an interview hours before the trial. “We will lay out all of the illegalities and make this a political prosecution … The state was caught in a criminal act, and it is doing all that it can to cover it up.
“We were arrested for two reasons: to punish us and to frighten others. And we see the intimidation has been effective. Fear dominates,” he added.
Dundar and Gul made an appearance before the courthouse on Friday morning, emphasizing that “journalism is not a crime” and once again calling publicly for their acquittal.
In the meantime, the trial of Dundar and Gul was sharply criticized by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which called it another case of persecution of journalists. Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, denounced the trial as another incident in a “continuous series of blatant violations of the freedom of press, of speech and of expression by Turkish authorities.”
Turkey had launched “a crackdown on the media that takes the liberty of providing more or less impartial coverage of the Turkish government’s policy. They are persecuted. And this is not the only example. Some journalists have already been sentenced for insulting President Erdogan,” Dolgov told Izvestia newspaper.
According to Dolgov, the media crackdown can be explained particularly by the fact that “the Turkish authorities fear the truth, [and fear] the exposure of their abusive practices… international law violations [in Syria].”
Both journalists were arrested in November and released following three months in detention after a constitutional court ruled on their release before trial – something Erdogan was not happy about.
“This institution, with the involvement of its president and some members, did not refrain from taking a decision that is against the country and its people, on a subject that is a concrete example of one of the biggest attacks against Turkey recently,” the state leader said at a rally in early March.
Just after the journalists’ release, Erdogan said he didn’t “obey or respect the [court’s] decision.” Their case “has nothing to do with press freedom,” he said, accusing them of “spying.”
He has also been heard saying Dundar would “pay a heavy price” for his crimes.
Numerous rights groups and press associations have voiced grave concern for press freedom in Turkey, all issuing calls to free Dundar and Gul. The International Press Institute called the trial “politically motivated.” Reporters Without Borders went a step further, calling Erdogan “increasingly despotic.”