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Turkey releases last jailed employee of Cumhuriyet newspaper

Newspaper says court ruled for accountant Emre Iper's release following appeal from his lawyers
Contentious case raised alarm bells over state of press freedom in Turkey (AFP/file photo)

A Turkish court ordered the release of the last jailed employee of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, who was sentenced on terrorism-related charges.

The employee was one of 14 staff members sentenced to lengthy prison terms in April 2018, the newspaper said on Friday.

Prosecutors had accused the defendants of supporting organisations Turkey views as terror groups, including the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).

The Cumhuriyet newspaper was also accused of having been effectively taken over by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric who the Turkish government blames for a 2016 failed coup.

The newspaper denies the charges and says it is being targeted to silence critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The contentious case raised alarm bells over the state of press freedom in the country, as Cumhuriyet is one of the few Turkish newspapers to criticise Erdogan.

While members of the staff have been gradually released from prison, Emre Iper the newspaper's accountant, was the last to remain in jail.

On Friday, Cumhuriyet said the court had ruled for Iper's release following an appeal from his lawyers.

Judicial reforms were passed by the Turkish parliament this month that are aimed at improving press and speech freedoms.

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

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

Turkey's government claims it imposed such measures under a state of emergency that was put in place in July 2016, and that they are needed to eradicate Gulen's influence from Turkish society.

Gulen has denied any involvement in the violent coup attempt that killed more than 240 people, and has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999. He and his followers insist they are victims of a witch hunt.

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Harlem Desir, the media freedom representative at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said he welcomed Iper's release and mentioned the release of three other journalists.

"I welcome the release of four journalists and media workers today in Turkey, at a time when the new judicial reform is entering into force," Desir said in a statement obtained by Reuters.

"I urge the Turkish authorities to use this positive momentum and release all journalists who are still behind bars in the country," he added.

In January, Ankara jailed 25 journalists, many of whom worked for the Zaman newspaper, over links to Gulen's followers.