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Turkish judge orders release of some Cumhuriyet journalists

Seven Cumhuriyet journalists will be released under 'judicial control' ahead of their next hearing while the rest will remain under arrest
Protesters hold pictures of jailed Cumhuriyet journalists along with signs reading "Free media cannot be silenced" during a demonstration against their arrest outside the courthouse of Istanbul (AFP)

A Turkish judge has ordered the release of a number of Cumhuriyet journalists on the last day of a highly controversial trial for supporting "terrorism."

The judge ordered that seven journalists including cartoonist Musa Kart, Guray Oz, Turhan Gunay, Onder Celik Kemal Gungor, Hakan Karasinir and Bulent Utku released from jail under "judicial control" ahead of the next hearing in September, while others including editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, Akin Atalay and Kadri Gursel will remain in jail.

Arrests warrants for former editor Can Dundar and Ilhan Tanir also remained on place.

The trial in Istanbul of 17 writers, cartoonists and executives from the paper began earlier this week. The defendants are some of the biggest names in Turkish journalism.

They are charged with supporting in their coverage three groups that Turkey considers terror outfits - the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the far-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), and the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher who Ankara accuses of ordering a coup attempt.

Supporters say the paper has always taken a tough line against the three groups and is merely being punished for being one of the few opposition voices in the Turkish media.

Sik, in particular, gained notoriety in 2011 for publishing a book exposing the workings of the Gulenist movement, and their then-close connections to the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).

In his defence testimony he savaged the two groups for bringing Turkey to its condition.

“They want us to keep silent about their guilt and to not tell the truth," he said. "They are using the blood of the victims killed by the (15 July) putschists as a demagogic part of a cheap and shallow political strategy.

"Because those who hold the power in their hands have only one goal in mind: to continue their totalitarian rule, no matter what.”

On Friday, the prosecutor in the case said that an additional criminal complaint should be brought against Sik for his defence testimony, branding it "misleading."

Eleven of the suspects have been held in jail in pre-trial detention, most of them for more than eight months, with the other six free but still charged. 

If convicted, they face varying terms of up to 43 years in jail.

'Invented from scratch'

The hearing started with Gursel's lawyer Koksal Bayraktar presenting the case for his release, saying the journalist had been jailed for 271 days and "only he can know what effect this has". 

Another lawyer for the defence, Alp Selek, told a packed courtroom he had been working for nearly 60 years but had "never seen an indictment that invented crimes from scratch".

"I have worked in extraordinary circumstances but this is the first time I have seen such an indictment," he said.

The trial comes as concern grows over press freedoms in Turkey under the state of emergency imposed the wake of the failed military coup in July 2016.

According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 166 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of them arrested under the state of emergency, to the alarm of Turkey's Western allies.

"The United States remains seriously concerned about the widespread arrest and pretrial detention that's taking place of individuals in Turkey who have been critical of that government," said US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

She added that Washington is urging Turkey to release "the journalists and others who we believe are being held arbitrarily" under the emergency. 

In a rare public intervention, former president Abdullah Gul, who Erdogan succeeded as head of state in 2014, said that the journalists should be set free.

"I have always said it would be right for journalists to be free while they are being tried. And here I also think that what is right is that they should be tried without being under arrest," he said. 

'Journalism is not a crime'

One of Turkey's oldest newspapers, Cumhuriyet ("Republic") has been fiercely critical of Erdogan, causing anger in the halls of power with embarrassing scoops. 

Since Monday, journalists from the daily have given powerful testimony, rejecting as absurd the terror charges laid against them.

"The duty of a journalist who takes his/her job seriously – especially if writing columns – is to broaden and diversify his/her perceptions about important issues in the country and to then provide to the readers a healthy, wholistic, and sound perspective," said Gursel, according to the Bir Gun news site.

"This act cannot be seen as a crime and receive punishment in any democracy in the world. This is called journalism; and, journalism is not a crime”.

On its front page on Friday, Cumhuriyet wrote "Freedom right now", adding: "The decision the court will make today will determine the fate of Turkish democracy."