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Turkish Newspaper Editors Arrested for Report on Arms Shipments to Syrian Rebels

The editor-in-chief of Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, along with that newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, has been arrested for “divulging state secrets” after publishing a report claiming that Turkey’s intelligence agency has been arming Syrian rebels against dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul were detained and are currently being held in “pre-trial detention” over a report surfacing in May that the Turkish government may be directly arming Syrian rebels. The report did not specify whether the Syrian rebels had ties to terrorist organizations like the Islamic State or al Qaeda. Specifically, it noted that Turkish security forces had stopped a convoy that appeared to be shipping weapons to Syria in early 2014. The trucks, Cumhuriyet claimed, had been directed to travel to Syria by the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), the nation’s equivalent to America’s CIA.

At the time of its publication, Turkey had yet to allow American warplanes to operate out of Turkish soil and had not yet begun participating in the coalition against the Islamic State. The report fueled speculation that the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was working alongside the Islamic State to topple Assad.

Erdogan filed a criminal complaint himself against Dündar and vowed he would pay a “heavy price” for the report.

“We are accused of ‘spying.’ The president said [our action is] ‘treason.’ We are not traitors, spy, or heroes; we are journalists. What we have done here was a journalistic activity,” Dündar said on Thursday, speaking before prosecutors following his arrest. Hurriyet reports the two editors are also being accused of having ties to followers of controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen, considered an enemy of the state by the Erdogan government. Gulen is currently facing an in-absentia trial in Turkey for allegedly trying to overthrow the Erdogan government. He is currently based in Philadelphia and has been investigated by the FBI for running a group of charter schools throughout the United States.

The Turkish government alleges that Cumhuriyet received the details in the offending report through followers of Gulen. “By publishing fabricated footage and information that were leaked to him by the parallel organization, [Dündar] participated in the actions of the organization’s members who searched the trucks and plotted with fabricated evidence to create a perception… that the Republic of Turkey as helping terrorist organizations,” according to the official complaint against Dündar.

Erdogan has personally responded to the accusation that he is arming terrorists in Syria by assuring Turks that “those trucks were trucks taking aid to our Bayırbucak Turkmens.” “What are we saying: ‘We are taking humanitarian assistance there.’ Who are they? They are our mistreated and oppressed Bayırbucak Turkmen siblings. That’s what we did,” Erdogan said in May. He later dismissed the claim of arms shipments entirely, asking, “What difference would it make whether the trucks contained weapons or not?”

Erdogan’s insistence of defending ethnic Turkmen tribes in Syria has led to hostilities with Russia after Erdogan ordered the downing of a Russian jet on Tuesday flying over Turkmen territory. Erdogan alleges Russian planes violated Turkish airspace and, even if they had not, were conducting missions in areas with little to no Islamic State presence. An analysis by the Reuters news agency found evidence to corroborate Erdogan’s claim, revealing that up to 80 percent of Russian airstrikes are occurring nowhere near Islamic State-held territory.

Cumhuriyet has found itself in the crosshairs of the Turkish government before. In January, police raided the newspaper’s headquarters to prevent it from publishing a Turkish-language insert version of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo featuring illustrations of Muhammad, the Islamic icon. The newspaper intended to publish the cartoons in support for the magazine following an Islamist attack on that publication’s headquarters in Paris, leaving much of its editorial staff dead.

Cumhuriyet editors were subsequently put on trial for “inciting public hatred” and “insulting religious values” over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

In response to the arrests this week, 2,000 people congregated outside of the newspaper’s offices to support its editors, holding up copies of today’s edition and chanting slogans in defense of free journalism. Among those assembled outside of Cumhuriyet‘s offices were publishers and writers for other newspapers, including the Zaman daily, which is often critical of the government.

“There could be differences of opinion between our views and those of Cumhuriyet but these differences are not an obstacle for me to defend media freedom, human rights and the rule of law. No one should be afraid of defending democracy, media freedom and the rule of law,” said Zaman editor-in-chief Abdülhamit Bilici at the rally.

Cumhuriyet has published a video of Dündar appearing in good spirits while awaiting processing at a courthouse.

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