Turkey demands life for journalists in coup trial

ISTANBUL – Turkish prosecutors on Monday demanded life terms for three veteran Turkish journalists on trial over accusations of links to the 2016 failed coup, in a case that has raised new concerns for freedom of speech in the country.

The brothers Ahmet and Mehmet Altan and prominent commentator Nazli Ilicak are charged with violating the Turkish constitution in the trial, which began in June at the Istanbul criminal court.

They are accused of links to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who Ankara says masterminded the failed bid to oust Erdogan. Gulen denies ties to the incident, which left 249 people dead, not including the plotters. The journalists have been charged with having foreknowledge of the coup bid and being involved in the sending of subliminal messages it was to happen, including an October 2015 advertising campaign by the now defunct pro-Gulen newspaper Zaman.

All three reject the charges.

Ilicak, 73, was one of the very first journalists arrested in July after the coup bid. Briefly an MP from 1999, she wrote for several dailies including Hurriyet.

Ahmet Altan, 67, is a novelist and journalist who has written for some of Turkey’s leading dailies including Hurriyet and Milliyet as well as founding the now closed opposition daily Taraf.

Mehmet Altan, 64, has written books on Turkish politics. Both were detained in early September although Ahmet Altan was released in mid-September before rapidly being re-arrested.

In the same case, prosecutors also demanded life sentences for former Zaman newspaper marketing manager Yakup Simsek, police academy instructor Sukru Tugrul Ozsengul and Zaman layout designer Fevzi Yazici.

The Altan brothers and Ilicak are also accused of appearing together on a TV show on a pro-Gulen channel just before the coup bid and issuing a message that the attempted overthrow was in the offing.

The case is separate to the trial 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from the opposition Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) daily on charges supporting terror groups.

Four of the suspects are still behind bars, including investigative reporter Ahmet Sik, and the trial is seen as a critical test of press freedom. The next hearing in that case is December 25.

Turkey ranks 155 on the latest Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, below Belarus and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to the P24 press freedom website, there are 153 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were detained under the state of emergency imposed after the coup bid.

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