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Turkey sentences 14 Cumhuriyet journalists to prison

Turkish court also ruled that trial of editor-in-chief Can Dundar would continue separately
Protesters hold poster portraits of Cumhuriyet's chairman Akin Atalayas they attend a demonstration at the courthouse in Istanbul (AFP)

A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced 14 staff of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet to prison on terrorism charges and acquitted three, one of their lawyers said, in a case that has sparked global outrage over press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The court handed down sentences ranging from two and a half to seven and a half years to the Cumhuriyet staff, lawyer Ozden Ozdemir told Reuters. Another defendant in the case, who was not employed by the paper and had been charged for his activities on Twitter, got the stiffest sentence, 10 years, Ozdemir said.

The court also ruled that the case against the prominent journalist Can Dundar, previously the newspaper's editor-in-chief, would continue separately, the Cumhuriyet reported.

The controversial case has raised alarm bells over the state of press freedom in Turkey as Cumhuriyet is one of the country's few newspapers to have been deeply critical of the president.

The paper's chairman, Akin Atalay, has already been in jail for more than 500 days, but other members of the paper's staff have been gradually released during the trial.

Kadri Gursel, a veteran journalist and columnist released last year after 11 months in jail, told the court that "journalism has been put on trial".

"We will walk away from here with our heads high and continue to do journalism no matter how hard it is to do so in an environment deprived of law and democracy.

"I demand acquittal for myself and my colleagues," Gursel added.

All defendants are charged with supporting, through their coverage, organisations that Turkey views as terror groups - the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).

They are also accused of supporting a movement led by Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen which Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup.

According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 165 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested under the state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt on 15 July 2016.

Supporters of the accused have repeatedly said the charges against the journalists are absurd and that the trial is political, noting that the outlawed groups cited in the indictment are themselves at odds with each other. 

"You don't have an easy job because you will decide based on empty dossiers," Gursel told the judge, describing the indictment as "rotten".  

Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, who was released in March pending the conclusion of the trial, said journalism was not a crime.

"We only did journalism and will continue to do so under all circumstances.

"Accusation is not a proof," said defence lawyer Fikret Ilkiz, referring to the indictment, earlier in the hearing.

"Journalists are accused of doing journalism in this case. The presence of Cumhuriyet newspaper is seen as a crime," he said, demanding acquittal of all the defendants.

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