Government prosecutors accuse those working at the country's leading newspaper of supporting terror organizations. The journalists accuse the government of using the courts to stifle the independent press.
A Turkish judge evicted an investigative journalist for the Cumhuriyet newspaper from the courtroom during a tense exchange on Monday, and ordered three other co-defendants to remain in jail for at least two more months during their ongoing trial.
Investigative journalist Ahmet Sik along with the paper's chairman Akin Atalay, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and accountant Emre Iper were ordered back to jail until their trial resumes on March 9.
The four are accused of supporting a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016 by virtue of their association with Cumhuriyet (whose title translates as "Republic").
Prosecutors allege that the newspaper was effectively taken over by supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of orchestrating the failed coup.
Gulen denies he had anything to do with the coup and the defendants deny the newspaper supports Gulen, formerly a close ally of President Erdogan.
In addition to their alleged support for Gulen, the employees are charged with supporting, through the newspaper's coverage, two other organizations Turkey views as terror groups — the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the left-wing Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).
Protesters hold placards with images of jailed journalists and words that translate as "You are not alone"
Tempers flare in open court
Sik warned in open court that the government was politicizing the failed coup so as to persecute Erdogan's opponents, saying it treats its critics like "terrorists."
"There is a judiciary controlled by the government that is translating this 'terrorist' term into preposterous accusations," Sik told the court.
Soon after, Sik, who has now been in prison for 360 days, was ordered to leave the court by Judge Abdurrahman Orkun Dag.
The judge rebuked Sik for his "political" defense statement, and cut him off.
"That's enough!" Dag said, "If you want to play politics, become a member of parliament... I cannot allow him to defend himself like this. Take the defendant outside!" the judge said, ordering Sik's removal from the courtroom.
Subsequently Sik warned trial witnesses, "The days will come where you will be tried, do not forget this," he said, according to Cumhuriyet.
The courtroom exchange was one of the most acrimonious of the long, drawn-out trial that began last July.
All told, 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from Cumhuriyet are facing an assortment of terror-related charges that could land some in prison for more than 40 years.
Many defendants won conditional release during previous hearings, including former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, who now lives in exile in Europe.
Outside the court house in Istanbul dozens of the defendants' supporters gathered, some holding signs saying "You are not alone, we are not alone", "Justice for all" and "Freedom for all journalists."
Others held Monday's issue of Cumhuriyet whose front page read: "Justice immediately."
bik/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa)