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Turkey releases two Cumhuriyet journalists as they await trial

17 newspaper staffers who face terror charges say they are being targeted to silence criticism of President Erdogan
Total of 17 staffers from Cumhuriyet face terror charges (AFP)

A Turkish court ruled on Friday that two journalists should be released for the duration of their trial for subversion, a lawyer at the courthouse said.

Murat Sabuncu, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, and writer Ahmet Sik were ordered released, the lawyer said. However, Cumhuriyet said that its attorney, Akin Atalay, was retained in custody at least until the next hearing, on 16 March.

Prosecutors charge that Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric blamed by the government for a 2016 failed coup. The newspaper and staff deny the charges and say they are being targeted to silence critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The three were the last remaining suspects in the case to be held behind bars ahead of a final verdict, leaving Atalay the sole suspect still behind bars.

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A total of 17 staffers from Cumhuriyet face terror charges in the trial, which opened on 24 July. Others have been gradually freed over the last year. It is still not clear when the final verdict will be announced.

Prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for the newspaper staff, who stand accused of targeting Erdogan through "asymmetric war methods".

Sabuncu and Atalay have spent the last 495 days in jail, while Sik has been jailed for 434 days.

Most of the indictment’s evidence consisted of social media posts and allegations that Cumhuriyet’s staff used Bylock, an encrypted messaging app that the government claims is used by Gulen’s followers.

Rights group Amnesty International said on Twitter that the ruling was "long overdue" and called for the release of all jailed journalists in Turkey.

Speaking after his release, Sabuncu said that little has changed, as several journalists remained in prison.

"We should not be happy that we have been released because our release does not mean things have changed in Turkey regarding freedom of speech," Sabuncu told reporters.

Sik reiterated Sabuncu's comments: "I am not happy in any way. I don't want you to be happy while Akin Atalay is still inside. I would prefer if you were angry, for anger will keep us standing," he said.

"Today is not a day for us to be happy, but there will come a day when we will be happy in this country," he added.

Around 150 media outlets have been shut down and 160 journalists have been jailed, according to the Turkish Journalists Association.

Earlier on Friday, Turkey's highest court overturned a five-year jail sentence for Cumhuriyet's former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, saying he should face up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges, according to the state-run news agency Anadolu.

Since the July 2016 coup attempt, more than 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended from their jobs, and another 50,000 have been arrested over alleged links to Gulen's network.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, has denied involvement in the abortive putsch, in which more than 240 people were killed.