Turkey:Journalists Freed after 375 Days Behind Bars

March 14, 2012
Four Turkish journalists detained on charges of links to an underground anti-government network were released Monday afternoon.

Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık are among the journalists who were jailed pending trial in the Odatv case. Thirteen suspects are facing charges of involvement in the media wing of Ergenekon, a shadowy network believed to have plotted to topple the government.

Şener and Şık were arrested in March and had been held in a top-security prison outside İstanbul since then. Their arrest raised concerns over media freedoms in Turkey. The United States, the European Union and human rights groups criticized the prosecution of journalists, which, they say, taints Turkey's image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.

Two other suspects, Coşkun Musluk and Sait Çakır, were also released on Monday.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç welcomed the release of the journalists as a "positive development" without directly commenting on the ruling.

"One can only be glad at their release. It is saddening that they spent 375 days inside," Arınç said in a news conference on Monday. "We should, in fact, question why the court didn't deliver this decision before."

The EU also welcomed the court's decision on Monday. Peter Stano, spokesperson of EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle, said the release of the journalists was "a pleasing step." He added that the bloc would monitor the case, noting that the progress report that is scheduled for released in the autumn would also mention the release of the journalists.

Prosecutors say a number of documents seized from the news portal's offices include various strategies on how to manipulate the media and the public to get support for an investigation into Ergenekon. Şener and Şık are accused of establishing a terrorist organization, managing it, being a member of it, inciting hatred and animosity among the public, obtaining documents related to the security of the state, being in possession of documents that are prohibited from being revealed and violating the privacy of others.

With the release of the four suspects, there are now six jailed suspects in the Odatv case. The İstanbul court rejected requests to release jailed suspects Yalçın Küçük, Soner Yalçın, Barış Pehlivan, Barış Terkoğlu, Hanefi Avcı and Müyesser Uğur during the same hearing on Monday.

Main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu welcomed the "belated release" of the journalists in a written statement and said he hopes it may open a "door of freedom" for other people, who have been unfairly deprived of their freedom.

The decision of the 16th İstanbul High Criminal Court overseeing the case came as a surprise. Relatives, friends and colleagues of the freed journalists shouted for joy outside the court and some cried and hugged each other upon hearing the news.

"Ahmet and Nedim are free," people shouted, shocked at the decision. Şık's brother, Bülent Şık, told Reuters: "Today's decision was a surprise for Ahmet and Nedim. They didn't expect it either."

The court based its decision on the length of time the defendants had already spent in prison and the low risk of them being able to tamper with evidence in the case.

However, critics have accused the government of scare-mongering over Ergenekon to silence opponents. The government denies any such motive. Human rights groups also criticized the length of time defendants remain in custody awaiting trial.

Lawyers for the defendants argue that computer documents central to the evidence against their clients were introduced by computer viruses and that this has been confirmed by investigations conducted by four universities.

If found guilty, the defendants could face a maximum 15-year prison sentence. The next hearing is scheduled for June 18. Şener and Şık have already set out their defense, calling the charges against them politically motivated and "a massacre of justice."

Turkey is holding nearly 100 members of the media in jail, one of the highest numbers worldwide. The government says they are not being prosecuted because of what they have written or broadcast.


Erdogan Nears Record of Duration of Service

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will surpass Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel in terms of uninterrupted service as prime minister on March 15, when he will enter his 10th year in power.

Erdoğan is currently Turkey's fourth longest serving prime minister, after former prime ministers İsmet İnönü, Adnan Menderes and Süleyman Demirel; Turkey, so far, has had 25. Erdoğan is also the third longest consecutive serving prime minister. İnönü was the longest with an uninterrupted 12 years in office. Menderes served a consecutive 10 years, five months in office. Özal served a consecutive five years, 11 months, while Demirel follows him with five-and-a-half years in office.

If Erdoğan stays in power until 2015, when his party's third term will expire, he will have served for an uninterrupted 13 years and three months, which would make him the prime minister to have served the longest consecutive term in office. But the record for the longest term overall in office, although with interruptions, will still belong to İnönü, as he held the prime ministry office for a total of 16 years, four months.

Erdoğan was convicted of "provoking hatred" and encouraging extremism in 1998 and banned from politics. Relevant constitutional amendments were carried out after the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, swept to power in 2002, and Erdoğan was eligible to run in parliamentary elections held in March 2003.

He was then elected prime minister and formed the 59th government. On July 22, 2007, the AKP received 47 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, and Erdoğan formed the 60th government. Erdoğan's AKP won a third consecutive term in the 2011 general elections by securing a record-high 50 percent of votes.


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