Turkish journalists’ trial over Syria arms report adjourned
Photo: Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, left, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara representative, speak to the media before the start of their trial in Istanbul, Friday, March 25, 2016.
A group of writers, including Nobel laureates, are calling on Turkey to drop charges against two prominent journalists who face life imprisonment for their reports, and to end its crackdown on free expression.
Dundar and Erdem Gul, go on trial on Friday accused of espionage and other charges for their reports on alleged government arms smuggling to Syrian rebels. (Associated Press)
By Dominique Soguel and Suzan Fraser | AP
March 25 at 11:53 AM
ISTANBUL — The trial of two Turkish journalists accused of revealing state secrets and helping a terror organization over their reports on alleged government-arms smuggling to Syrian rebels was adjourned on Friday after opposition lawmakers refused to leave the courthouse in defiance of a ruling that the case should be behind closed doors.
Cumhuriyet newspaper’s chief editor Can Dundar and Ankara representative Erdem Gul face life imprisonment if found guilty of charges of espionage and of aiding the moderate Islamic movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a foe of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The pair are on trial for publishing images that reportedly date back to January 2014, when local authorities searched Syria-bound trucks, leading to a standoff with Turkish intelligence officials. Cumhuriyet said the images proved Turkey was smuggling arms to Islamist rebels.
The prosecutor asked that the hearing proceed behind closed doors, a request that was granted by the court, according to local media. Turkey’s private Dogan news agency said the court also accepted that the Turkish president and national intelligence organization should be plaintiffs in the case.
Opposition lawmakers insisted on attending the hearing and refused to leave the courthouse, which meant that the afternoon session could not move forward, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. The panel of judges also decided to file a complaint against the legislators for attempting to influence the trial.
Representatives of international media advocacy groups, who are pressing Turkey to drop charges, also came to Friday’s opening hearing to show their support. The trial is seen as a bellwether of the future of press freedom in the country, which has witnessed a growing crackdown on independent and opposition media over the past few years.
The journalists were arrested in November after Erdogan filed a personal complaint against the two. Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled in February that their rights were violated, leading to their release from jail.
Speaking to reporters as he entered the courthouse, Dundar said he was hopeful that the court would take the high court’s ruling into account and drop charges.
“The Constitutional Court has already said that this news is not an act of terrorism but an act of journalism. So this judge, we hope, will approve this decision and drop (this) case,” he said.
The indictment accuses the two of working with the Gulen movement to create the image that the government was aiding terror groups.
The government initially denied the trucks were carrying arms, maintaining that the cargo consisted of humanitarian aid. Some officials later suggested the trucks were carrying arms or ammunition destined for Turkmen kinsmen in Syria.
Government officials accuse Gulen’s supporters of stopping the trucks as part of an alleged plot to bring down the government. The government has branded the movement a “terror organization” although it is not known to have engaged in any acts of violence.
Speaking in Istanbul on Thursday, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, criticized the authorities for treating journalists as a threat when the country is facing real terrorism. He also criticized Erdogan, who filed the lawsuit against Dundar and Gul, for spearheading attacks against the media and creating an ”atmosphere of fear.”
A representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists also came to Turkey to attend the hearing. ”They have done nothing wrong but committed the act of journalism,” said Nina Ognianova. ”They have covered a story of public interest that is important not only for Turkey but also the region and the international community.”
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.
World | Thu May 21, 2015 2:43pm EDT
Related: World, Turkey, Syria
Exclusive: Turkish intelligence helped ship arms to Syrian Islamist rebel areas
By Humeyra Pamuk and Nick Tattersall
A locally made shell is launched by rebel fighters towards forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad at the frontline in al-Breij district of Aleppo December 10, 2014. REUTERS/Sultan Kitaz
A locally made shell is launched by rebel fighters towards forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad at the frontline in al-Breij district of Aleppo December 10, 2014.
Turkey’s state intelligence agency helped deliver arms to parts of Syria under Islamist rebel control during late 2013 and early 2014, according to a prosecutor and court testimony from gendarmerie officers seen by Reuters.
The witness testimony contradicts Turkey’s denials that it sent arms to Syrian rebels and, by extension, contributed to the rise of Islamic State, now a major concern for the NATO member.
Syria and some of Turkey’s Western allies say Turkey, in its haste to see President Bashar al-Assad toppled, let fighters and arms over the border, some of whom went on to join the Islamic State militant group which has carved a self-declared caliphate out of parts of Syria and Iraq.
Ankara has denied arming Syria’s rebels or assisting hardline Islamists. Diplomats and Turkish officials say it has in recent months imposed tighter controls on its borders.
Testimony from gendarmerie officers in court documents reviewed by Reuters allege that rocket parts, ammunition and semi-finished mortar shells were carried in trucks accompanied by state intelligence agency (MIT) officials more than a year ago to parts of Syria under Islamist control.
Four trucks were searched in the southern province of Adana in raids by police and gendarmerie, one in November 2013 and the three others in January 2014, on the orders of prosecutors acting on tip-offs that they were carrying weapons, according to testimony from the prosecutors, who now themselves face trial.
While the first truck was seized, the three others were allowed to continue their journey after MIT officials accompanying the cargo threatened police and physically resisted the search, according to the testimony and prosecutor’s report.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said the three trucks stopped on Jan. 19 belonged to MIT and were carrying aid.
"Our investigation has shown that some state officials have helped these people deliver the shipments," prosecutor Ozcan Sisman, who ordered the search of the first truck on Nov. 7 2013 after a tip-off that it was carrying weapons illegally, told Reuters in a interview on May 4 in Adana.
Both Sisman and Aziz Takci, another Adana prosecutor who ordered three trucks to be searched on Jan. 19 2014, have since been detained on the orders of state prosecutors and face provisional charges, pending a full indictment, of carrying out an illegal search.
The request for Sisman’s arrest, issued by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and also seen by Reuters, accuses him of revealing state secrets and tarnishing the government by portraying it as aiding terrorist groups.
Sisman and Takci deny the charges.
"It is not possible to explain this process, which has become a total massacre of the law," Alp Deger Tanriverdi, a lawyer representing both Takci and Sisman, told Reuters.
"Something that is a crime cannot possibly be a state secret."
More than 30 gendarmerie officers involved in the Jan. 1 attempted search and the events of Jan. 19 also face charges such as military espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, according to an April 2015 Istanbul court document.
An official in Erdogan’s office said Erdogan had made his position clear on the issue. Several government officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment further. MIT officials could not immediately be reached.
"I want to reiterate our official line here, which has been stated over and over again ever since this crisis started by our prime minister, president and foreign minister, that Turkey has never sent weapons to any group in Syria," Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Wednesday at an event in Washington.
Erdogan has said prosecutors had no authority to search MIT vehicles and were part of what he calls a "parallel state" run by his political enemies and bent on discrediting the government.
"Who were those who tried to stop MIT trucks in Adana while we were trying to send humanitarian aid to Turkmens?," Erdogan said in a television interview last August.
"Parallel judiciary and parallel security ... The prosecutor hops onto the truck and carries out a search. You can’t search an MIT truck, you have no authority."
’TARNISHING THE GOVERNMENT’
One of the truck drivers, Murat Kislakci, was quoted as saying the cargo he carried on Jan. 19 was loaded from a foreign plane at Ankara airport and that he had carried similar shipments before. Reuters was unable to contact Kislakci.
Witness testimony seen by Reuters from a gendarme involved in a Jan. 1, 2014 attempt to search another truck said MIT officials had talked about weapons shipments to Syrian rebels from depots on the border. Reuters was unable to confirm this.
At the time of the searches, the Syrian side of the border in Hatay province, which neighbors Adana, was controlled by hardline Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham.
The Salafist group included commanders such as Abu Khaled al-Soury, also known as Abu Omair al-Shamy, who fought alongside al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and was close to its current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Soury was killed in by a suicide attack in Syrian city of Aleppo in February 2014.
A court ruling calling for the arrest of three people in connection with the truck stopped in November 2013 said it was loaded with metal pipes manufactured in the Turkish city of Konya which were identified as semi-finished parts of mortars.
The document also cites truck driver Lutfi Karakaya as saying he had twice carried the same shipment and delivered it to a field around 200 meters beyond a military outpost in Reyhanli, a stone’s throw from Syria.
The court order for Karakaya’s arrest, seen by Reuters, cited a police investigation which said that the weapons parts seized that day were destined for "a camp used by the al Qaeda terrorist organization on the Syrian border".
Reuters was unable to interview Karakaya or to independently confirm the final intended destination of the cargo.
Sisman said it was a tip-off from the police that prompted him to order the thwarted search on Jan. 1, 2014.
"I did not want to prevent its passage if it belonged to MIT and carried aid but we had a tip off saying this truck was carrying weapons. We were obliged to investigate," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ercan Gurses in Ankara; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Anna Willard)