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Press, professors go on trial in Turkey

Tom Stevenson, Istanbul
April 22, 2016

A Turkish court will try two of the country's top journalists and four academics accused of signing a petition, highlighting the government's crackdown on free speech. Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.


Four Turkish academics will appear before Istanbul's 13th penal court on Friday to face charges of "spreading terrorist propaganda" for their alleged role in organizing a petition against the government's military operations in the southeast of the country.

The same morning, and in the same court, Turkish journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the editor-in-chief and Ankara bureau chief of "Cumhuriyet," one of the country's best known newspapers, will appear in a closed-door hearing on charges of espionage and divulging state secrets for the paper's role in exposing how the Turkish intelligence service (MiT) was shipping arms across the border into Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid.

Demonstrations are planned outside the courtroom and members of a German parliamentary delegation, as well as diplomats from European consulates in Istanbul, are expected to attend.

Human rights violations

The academics were among more than 2,000 people in Turkey who signed a petition criticizing the Turkish government's use of 24-hour military curfews and large-scale army operations in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country.

Türkei Kurden Diyarbakir Zerstörung
Fighting has devastated parts of southeastern TurkeyImage: DW/D. Cupolo

According to information compiled by the Human Rights Association of Turkey (TIHV), an independent human rights NGO, at least 338 civilians including 78 children have been killed in the military curfews since August 16, 2015. TIHV reported that more than 1,600,000 people have been exposed to violations of basic human rights in the curfew zones.

The petition called for the government to "prepare the conditions for negotiations" leading to a political settlement of the conflict that would take into account "the demands of the Kurdish political movement."

In total, 20 academics were arrested, but four of the organizers, Muzaffer Kaya, Esra Mungan, Kivanc Ersoy and Meral Camci, remained in pre-trial detention on charges of "making propaganda for a terrorist organization" under Turkey's anti-terrorism law.

"Despite knowing that the terrorist organization [the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)] is the source of the violence, the statement notably does not criticize or condemn the terrorist organization, demonstrating that the defendants in reality support the actions of the terrorist organization," state prosecutors said in a statement on March 15.

Camci and Mungan were being held in Bakirkoy women's prison in Istanbul, while Kaya and Ersoy were being held in Silivri, on the edge of the city. Kaya and Ersoy were held in isolation between March 24 and April 4.

Erdogan: Harsh punishment for academics

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged harsh punishment for the academics.

Türkischer Präsident Erdogan mit Premier Davutoglu
There is a gap between Erdogan and Davutoglu when it comes to punishing academicsImage: AFP/Getty ImagesA. Altan

"You think you will try to disrupt the unity of the nation and continue to have a comfortable life with the help of the salary that you receive from the state and pay no price? Those days are over," Erdogan said on January 20 in a speech at presidential palace.

According to Burak Bilgehan Ozpek, an assistant professor of international relations at Ankara's TOBB University, the trials also show a gap in the Turkish government between Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

"Prime Minister Davutoglu is a former academic and graduated from the same university, Bogazici University, as Esra Mungan - one of the defendants," Ozpek told DW. "The prime minister has come out clearly against the imprisonment of academics for signing a petition, but President Erdogan has also clearly stated that he believes they must be jailed.

"This trial, and its result, will display the polarization between the moderate and radical wings of the Turkish government, and we will see how it bears out."

Life sentences threaten journalists

The Turkish state's case against journalists Dundar and Gul is also continuing. In May 2015, "Cumhuriyet" published a report, including video footage the paper had obtained of MiT trucks laden with weapons bound for Syria.

Türkei PK Can Dundar und Erdem Gul
Dundar and Gul could face life behind barsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Erok

At the last hearing, which was closed to the public, the pair's lawyers were able to make a defense and said they were pleasantly surprised when the Turkish intelligence service's lawyers did not request the journalists be rearrested.

Dundar and Gul could face life sentences if found guilty on espionage charges.

Dundar's lawyers, however, said they believe the state may attempt to have his case joined with another case in which a gendarmerie commander and the state prosecutor involved in searching the trucks are accused of plotting to besmirch Turkey's reputation.

"We fear the authorities are attempting to fold our case into theirs and turn it into an umbrella case, which wouldn't be good news for us," Dundar said. "As it would be much more difficult to protect the freedom to publish."

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