Rights of jailed Turkish journalists were violated: Court

AFP , Thursday 25 Feb 2016

File photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo: AFP)

Turkey's constitutional court on Thursday ruled that the rights of two Turkish opposition journalists charged with revealing state secrets in a hugely controversial case had been violated, paving the way for their release after three months in jail.

The Cumhuriyet newspaper's editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul have been detained since November over a report alleging that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government tried to ship arms to Islamists in Syria.

They had been due to go on trial on March 25 and had so far been held in jail for 92 days.

The constitutional court, which convened to discuss the journalists' individual petitions, ruled that their "rights to personal liberty and security had been violated," the court said in a statement on its website.

"Their freedom of expression and freedom of press" was also violated, it added, ruling to send the dossier to the lower court for "the removal of violation."

The decision was overwhelmingly approved with 12 votes for and three against, Turkish media reports said.

The dossier has now been sent back to the lower criminal court which should rubber-stamp the top court's decision and thus allow the release of the journalists possibly within hours, the private NTV television reported.

Reports said their lawyers had already filed the petition for the pair's release at the Istanbul court which ordered their arrest.

Dundar and Gul were placed under arrest in late November over a report in May that claimed to show proof that a consignment of weapons seized at the border in January 2014 was bound for Syria.

Since then, they have both been held in the Silivri jail on the outskirts of Istanbul.

They have been formally charged with obtaining and revealing state secrets "for espionage purposes" and seeking to "violently" overthrow the Turkish government as well as aiding an "armed terrorist organisation."

Both Erdogan and the head of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) Hakan Fidan -- the president's hugely powerful but low-profile ally -- are named as plaintiffs in the 473-page indictment.

Turkish prosecutors demanded life terms for the pair, as well as aggravated life sentences, which impose tougher conditions.

The report sparked a furore in Turkey, fuelling speculation about the government's role in the Syrian conflict and its alleged dealings with Islamist rebels in Syria.

The case has amplified concerns about press freedom under the rule of Erdogan, who had personally warned Dundar he would "pay a price" over the front-page story.

Human rights activists have protested at the detention and the charges against the journalists, calling for their release.

The case also added new tensions to relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU) which had warned Ankara it needed to show "full respect" for human rights as part of its membership bid.

US Vice President Joe Biden, on an official visit to Istanbul in January, complained that media were being "intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting" in Turkey.

"That's not the kind of example that needs to be set," said Biden, who also met with the wife and son and of Dundar in talks that greatly irritated the government.

But Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had himself expressed discomfort with the journalists' incarceration, saying it would be far better if they were freed pending trial.

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