Turkey sentences journalists to life in jail over coup attempt

Sentencing over alleged role in failed coup in 2016 condemned as devastating precedent that shows disregard for rule of law.

A Turkish court has sentenced six defendants, including three prominent journalists, to life in prison over allegations of involvement in a 2016 coup attempt, in the first conviction of journalists in trials related to the failed putsch.

The harsh verdict was swiftly condemned by press freedom advocates as a “devastating precedent” that shows “utter disregard for the rule of law” in Turkey.

It came after a months-long trial during which it was alleged that the journalists sent “subliminal messages” via TV appearances and newspaper columns urging the overthrow of the government, and that they maintained contact with members of the Fethullah Gülen network, a movement widely believed in Turkey to have orchestrated the coup attempt.

The verdict constitutes a major defeat for press freedom in the Nato member state, which has cracked down on dissent in the aftermath of the coup. At least 73 journalists remain behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks Turkey the world’s worst jailer of journalists, ahead of China and Egypt.

The journalists sentenced on Friday were the brothers Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan, who have been detained since 2016, and Nazlı Ilıcak. The conviction defies an order by Turkey’s highest court to release Mehmet Altan, after it found last month that his imprisonment had violated his constitutional rights.

Sarah Clarke, the policy and advocacy manager for the writers’ association PEN International, tweeted her dismay at the sentences.

The International Press Institute said it was “appalled” by the verdict.

The sentencing came on the same day another Turkish court ordered the release of Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish journalist who spent just over a year in pre-trial detention without an indictment, in a case that tested relations between Ankara and Berlin and highlighted the precarious state of press freedom in Turkey.

A criminal court in Istanbul decided to release Yücel pending a trial after prosecutors said they had completed their investigation into the journalist. The court accepted the indictment filed by prosecutors, who are seeking an 18-year prison sentence over allegations of spreading propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organisation.

The order to release him was confirmed by the state-run Anadolu Agency, the German foreign minister, and Yücel’s lawyer, Veysel Ok, who tweeted a photograph of Yücel embracing his wife after he was freed.

The Die Welt correspondent was detained on 14 February 2017 after going to an Istanbul police station for questioning. He got married in prison and spent months in solitary confinement at Silivri maximum security prison outside Istanbul. He spent 366 days in detention without formal charges.

Yücel’s detention came amid a deep rift in relations between Germany and Turkey. Berlin barred Turkish ministers from holding rallies in Germany with Turkish citizens ahead of a referendum on presidential powers, and condemned growing authoritarianism under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who in turn has condemned rising Islamophobia in Europe. Talks on Turkey’s future membership of the EU have been stalled for years.