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Turkey Sentences Six Journalists to Life in Prison for Alleged Ties to 2016 Coup

A man holds a poster with the slogan '#FREEDENIZ' during a protest in front of the Turkish embassy in Berlin, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. Demonstrators protest against the police custody of Deniz Yucel, a correspondent in Turkey for the German daily newspaper 'Welt'. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

A Turkish court on Friday sentenced six employees of media companies to life in prison for allegedly supporting the failed 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“They are the first journalists to be convicted over the July 15, 2016, coup, which Turkey says was orchestrated by a network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies involvement. Their conviction came as another court in the same courthouse ordered German journalist Deniz Yucel—detained in Turkey for a year—released from jail pending trial,” the Associated Press reports.

Yucel is a correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper. He was accused of spreading propaganda for the PKK, the violent Kurdish separatist organization, and for inciting violence in support of the Gulen movement.

Yucel’s arrest has been a source of considerable tension between the German and Turkish governments, particularly since he was held so long without formal charges being filed. He was released a day after a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

Deutsche Welle notes that President Erdogan surprisingly stated he wished Yucel released during an interview with a German television network, and takes his subsequent release as a sign Erdogan’s power “does have its limits.”

Most international news organizations took note of the juxtaposition between Yucel being freed from jail at the same time six Turkish journalists were imprisoned on similar charges.

“The journalists who received life sentences worked for some of the 150 news organizations that were shuttered after the failed coup on July 15, 2016. Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic government has jailed tens of thousands of people, including scores of journalists, and tightened its control over civic institutions,” the New York Times observed.

The cases introduced against the six are dubious and tie them to the Gulenists marginally, in most cases. The prosecution argued they were sending pro-Gulen “subliminal messages” through their columns and television appearances. The judge threw the entire defense team for one of the accused writers out of the court at one point. The prosecutor was also changed in the middle of the trial.

International condemnation of the life sentences was swift. The three high-profile journalists sentenced in the case are all over 65 years of age.

“The court decision condemning journalists to aggravated life in prison for their work, without presenting substantial proof of their involvement in the coup attempt or ensuring a fair trial, critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey,” said U.N. special rapporteur David Kaye.

Sarah Clarke of the writer’s group PEN International called it the “apex of the disintegration of the rule of law in Turkey” and a “devastating precedent for scores of other journalists charged with similarly groundless charges.”

The International Press Institute (IPI) similarly condemned the sentence as “proof of the total disregard for the rule of law in Turkey.”

“This is not merely censorship at its height, nor only the impeding of freedom of expression: This is the clearest possible demonstration of the blatant disregard for the values of justice and of freedom of speech both at home and in the wider world,” said the IPI.

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