ISTANBUL – A court in Istanbul convicted six journalists of terror-related charges Friday in a case that heightened concerns over the freedom of expression and media rights in Turkey. The staff members of a now-defunct newspaper received lengthy prison sentences.
However, the court acquitted five other former journalists for Zaman, a newspaper which was close to a U.S.-based cleric whom Turkey blames for a failed military coup. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, denies masterminding the 2016 coup attempt.
The 11 defendants were arrested shortly after the coup. They were charged with membership in a terror organization, violating the Turkish Constitution, attempting to overthrow the government and other crimes. The court convicted the six of membership in an armed terror organization, but dropped the other charges.
"(The) fact that the legitimate work of journalists has not been recognized before the court today is a clear message that journalists will feel for a while," Erol Onderoglu of the media rights group Reporters without Borders told The Associated Press.
Columnist Mumtazer Turkone and Zaman's Ankara bureau chief, Mustafa Onal, were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. Journalist Ibrahim Karayegen received nine years, while columnists Ali Bulac, Sahin Alpay and Ahmet Turan Alkan each received over eight years.
They were expected to appeal their convictions. The court ruled that Turkone and Onal would remain imprisoned pending their appeals.
"Unfortunately, the judiciary in Turkey is maybe having its worst days in its history. It's under heavy political pressure," lawyer Faruk Zorba, who represented Alkan, told the AP outside the courthouse.
"The (Gulen) organization is a religious structure in its basis, but the defendants on trial here are mostly people who've espoused a secular lifestyle," he said.
Alkan's wife expressed pleasure at her husband's release after nearly two years in detention.
"I am very happy," Suheyla Alkan said. "I thank the Turkish judiciary. "
Since the coup attempt, some 50,000 people, including dozens of journalists, were arrested in a massive crackdown on alleged Gulen supporters. Some 110,000 people have been fired from public sector jobs. At least 140 media organizations were shut down.
Zaman was raided in March 2016 after a court placed it under the management of trustees and later shuttered for allegedly serving as a mouthpiece for Gulen's movement.
Earlier this year, three other prominent journalists were given life sentences for alleged links to Gulen.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul contributed.