ANKARA, Turkey – Two journalists imprisoned for their reports on alleged government arms-smuggling to Syria were released from jail early on Friday hours after Turkey's highest court ruled that their rights were violated.
A large group of supporters greeted Cumhuriyet newspaper's editor-in-chief Can Dundar and the paper's Ankara representative, Erdem Gul, as they emerged from a van after being freed from Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul.
The two were jailed in November, months after the center-left opposition daily Cumhuriyet published what it said were images of Turkish trucks carrying ammunition to Syrian militants. The images reportedly date back to January 2014, when local authorities searched Syria-bound trucks, touching off a standoff with Turkish intelligence officials. The paper said the images proved that Turkey was smuggling arms to rebels. The government initially denied the trucks were carrying arms, maintaining that the cargo consisted of humanitarian aid Some officials later suggested the trucks were carrying arms or ammunition destined for Turkmen groups in Syria.
The two were arrested after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan filed a complaint against them, leading to heightened concerns over conditions for journalists and media freedoms in Turkey.
The Constitutional Court ruled late on Thursday that authorities had violated Dundar's and Gul's personal rights as well as their rights to freedom of expression by jailing them, paving their way to prosecution without being held in prison.
Prosecutors are seeking life prison terms for Dundar and Gul on charges of supporting a terror organization, threatening state security and espionage for publishing state secrets. They are accused of collaborating with a movement led by a U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has become Erdogan's top foe.
The prosecutors' indictment accuses the two of working with the movement to create the image that the government was aiding terror groups and to cripple its "ability to rule." Government officials accuse Gulen's supporters of stopping the trucks as part of a plot to bring down the government. The government has branded the movement a "terror organization" although it is not known to have been engaged in any acts of violence.
The journalists' first trial is set for March 25.
Dundar called the court's ruling for their release a historic decision for freedom of expression in Turkey. He also said his release Friday would be "a present" on Erdogan's 62nd birthday.
Last month, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Dundar's wife during a visit to Turkey in a show of support for journalists facing prosecution.