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Turkish court orders 5 reporters for opposition daily to remain in custody

Prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for newspaper staff of Cumhuriyet for 'asymmetric war methods'
A copy of the newspaper Cumhuriyet (AFP)

A Turkish court ordered on Monday that five staff members of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet being tried on charges of "terror activities" remain in custody.

The court said the newspaper correspondents and executives, some of whom have already been detained for 10 months, should remain in detention until more evidence is presented.

"The court has decided to keep the arrested until witnesses are heard," chief judge Abdurrahman Orkun Dag said after a 13-hour session, adjourning the case for two weeks. "After hearing the witnesses, we think a more healthy decision could be reached."

Prosecutors say Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric blamed by the government for last year's failed coup attempt, and that the paper was used to target Erdogan and "veil the actions of terrorist groups".

The case, which opened in Istanbul in July, involves 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from Cumhuriyet, including editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and chief executive Akin Atalay.

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

The court justified its decision to keep the staff members in custody by saying it had been unable to question three witnesses called to the stand Monday.

A "more definitive" decision on their continued detention will be taken at a hearing scheduled for 25 September, the tribunal's president said.

For government critics, the case is emblematic of the erosion of freedom following last year's failed coup, when Ankara launched a crackdown targeting those with alleged links to the putschists as well as opponents.

The secular daily is one of a few voices in the Turkish media to oppose Erdogan, with its embarrassing scoops angering those in the corridors of power. 

On 28 July, an Istanbul court freed seven of the newspaper's staff after 271 days, including respected cartoonist Musa Kart and Turhan Gunay, editor of the books supplement.

But some of the paper's most prominent staff remain in custody, among them commentator Kadri Gursel and investigative journalist Ahmet Sik.

Gursel was defiant when he took the stand, claiming he was on trial because of his "journalistic activities".

"Whatever the verdict, I have an untroubled conscience. And if there is even a little bit of justice left in this period where justice has been trampled upon, I know I will be acquitted," he said.

Those on trial are charged with using their position to support the Gulen movement along with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the ultra-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).

Ankara has branded all three terror organisations.

Editor-in-chief Sabuncu condemned the trial, telling the judge it "has unfortunately already entered the darkest pages of the history of press freedom" in Turkey.

Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary general, said the journalists "are judged simply because they embody the journalism worthy of its name in Turkey and they do not broadcast the propaganda of the Erdogan regime".

According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 170 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested after the coup.

The country ranks 155 out of 180 on the latest RSF world press freedom index.