Can Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of the anti-Islamist Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, received a 27-year prison sentence Wednesday for allegedly aiding a terrorist group by publishing a news story.
Dündar left Turkey in 2016, stepping down from the top post at Turkey’s oldest national newspaper, following a public assassination attempt on the steps of the courthouse. Cumhuriyet has endured police action and prosecutions at all levels — from editor-in-chief to cafeteria cook — for publishing stories unfavorable to Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Dündar and his Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, initially faced legal action in 2016 after publishing a report that Erdogan was using Turkey’s intelligence infrastructure to smuggle weapons into Syria, to aid rebels fighting dictator Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan publicly opposed Assad’s rule and has repeatedly referred to him as a “terrorist,” but the bombshell report revealed Erdogan was also covertly aiding Assad’s enemies. The Cumhuriyet report featured photos of the alleged smuggled weapons.
Cumhuriyet subsequently published reports accusing Erdogan of aiding Islamic State jihadists in Syria. Dündar has maintained for years that Erdogan’s administration, a formal ally of the United States through NATO, has concrete ties to ISIS jihadists.
“Turkey has been hosting ISIS for years,” Dündar told Kurdistan 24 last year. “Everyone knows it in the region.”
Following the detentions of both senior staffers, Turkish police arrested another 17 editors and other employees at Cumhuriyet, charging them similarly with aiding terrorists in 2017.
An Istanbul court tried Dündar in absentia this year and ruled on Wednesday that he was guilty of aiding Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen — a U.S.-based Erdogan opponent whose religious organization, Hizmet, the Turkish state refers to as “the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO)” — despite the court’s inability to confirm any ties between Gülen and Dündar.
According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, Dündar’s publication of articles and images that tarnished Erdogan’s image aided Gülen. The court stated that Dündar was guilty of “providing information — which should remain confidential for the security of the state or domestic or foreign political benefits — with a purpose of political or military espionage.”
“The court also said Dündar aided the FETÖ terror group although he was not part of the hierarchical structure of the terror group, adding that the defendant was the editor-in-chief of a publicly known Turkish daily (Cumhuriyet) on the date of the crime,” Hurriyet detailed, “and created a perception among the public in favor of the terror group via publishing the news which was also later used by the terrorist organization.”
Gülen’s group identifies as a religious, public service group and eschews Ankara’s classification of it as a terrorist group. American officials have criticized Turkey for demanding Gülen’s extradition — Gülen lives in Pennsylvania — without providing evidence of his alleged crimes. Erdogan has repeatedly accused Gülen of staging the failed coup against him in 2016.
Dündar received an 18-year, nine-month sentence for vague “espionage” allegations and another eight years and nine months in prison for “aiding a terror group.”
Dündar’s attorneys published a statement on Tuesday explaining that they would not attend the reading of the verdict Wednesday to protest the unfairness of the legal process.
Journalist Can Dündar’s @candundaradasi lawyers announce they will not be attending tomorrow’s hearing in Dündar’s trial over coverage of alleged arms transfer to Syria, in protest of lack of fair trial.
Istanbul court is expected to issue its verdict at tomorrow’s session. pic.twitter.com/fGS0wBb7P8
— Expression Interrupted (@ExInt24) December 22, 2020
Dündar himself called the ruling the result of a personal “vendetta” Erdogan has against him.
“This is a political decision, a vendetta which has nothing to do with law,” Dündar told the Agence France-Presse (AFP). “Erdogan already warned me that I would pay a price. Now he is trying to have me pay a price.”
In exile in Germany and with the full backing of the German state, Dündar is unlikely to serve any of the sentence, yet the verdict technically bans him from visiting his home and his family. Upon fleeing in 2016, Dündar joined a growing number of exiled Turkish journalists persecuted following the failed coup in July of that year, which Erdogan blamed Gülen for.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued a statement supporting Dündar and condemning the Turkish state.
“Journalism is not a crime but an indispensable service to society — even and especially when it looks critically … on the fingers of those in power,” Maas said.
Dündar and Gül were already sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for the report. Gül was ultimately acquitted. During that trial, in May 2016, Dündar faced an assassination attempt caught on camera. Leaving the Istanbul courthouse hosting the trial for a recess, Dündar was confronted by a man later identified as Murat Şahin, who shouted “You are a traitor!” and shot at Dündar. Şahin later claimed that he intended only to scare Dündar, alleging, “if I wanted to kill him, I would have.”