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Turkey upholds conviction of journalists despite higher court overturning 'scandalous' verdict

The journalists are accused of supporting terrorist organisations [AFP]

Date of publication: 22 November, 2019

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The 12 are former journalists for Cumhuriyet, one of the last remaining opposition newspapers in Turkey.
A Turkish court upheld the convictions against former journalists from Turkey's oldest newspaper on Thursday, despite their sentences being overturned by a higher court.

The ruling against 12 former staffers from Cumhuriyet - one of few remaining oppositional dailies in the country - was described as "scandalous" by rights groups.

For critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, their re-conviction is evidence of a sweeping crackdown on media freedom that has seen Turkey become the world's largest jailer of journalists.

The 12 were convicted last year of supporting, through their news coverage, three organisations that Turkey deems terrorist organisations: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHPK-C), and the Gulen movement blamed for a failed coup in 2016.

Dozens of journalists, opposition politicians and activists have been accused of supporting or propagandising for terrorist organisations in recent years, most frequently for alleged support for the PKK, a Kurdish militia engaged in an on-off civil war with the Turkish state since the early 1980s.

While the PKK and DHKP-C are classified as terrorist organisations outside of Turkey, followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen are only considered as members of a terrorist group by Northern Cyprus and Pakistan.

They were sentenced to jail terms ranging from two-and-a-half years to more than eight years, but Turkey's Supreme Court overturned the sentences in September and freed the former journalists pending Thursday's retrial.

But the lower court ignored that decision, and reconfirmed the original sentences, with the exception of one journalist - Kadri Gursel - who was acquitted.

"Once again a Turkish court has defied the decision of the higher court. Once again, journalism is the victim in this case," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, of Human Rights Watch, outside the court. 

"The same very weak, bogus evidence has been used once again... It is a scandalous decision and another decision that will go down in history as evidence of Turkey's broken criminal justice system," she added.

Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled in May that the case had violated the rights to freedom, free expression and personal security of two of the journalists: Gursel and Murat Aksoy.

In court, the defendants struck a defiant tone, with Cumhuriyet's former lawyer Bulent Utku saying the case was "political from the beginning, and aimed at revenge."

Among those re-convicted on Thursday was Ahmet Sik, an investigative journalist known for his expose of Gulen's network who is currently serving as a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

Turkish media groups have slowly been brought under the control of Erdogan's allies in recent years, meaning much of the press is uncritical of the government.

Cumhuriyet, founded in 1924, is a rare case in that it is not in the hands of a business tycoon, but controlled by an independent foundation.

The daily has come under huge pressure, with former editor-in-chief Can Dundar fleeing to Germany after being convicted in 2016 over an article alleging that Turkey had supplied weapons to extremist groups in Syria.

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