Turkish journalists accused of aiding terror groups
London - Turkish prosecutors revealed charges against 19 journalists and staff of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper, some of whom have been jailed for five months, accusing them of aiding and abetting Islamist, Kurdish and communist terrorist groups and targeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an “asymmetric” propaganda war.
The charges come ahead of an April 16th referendum on a new constitution that would abolish the post of prime minister, reduce parliamentary oversight and grant the presidency sweeping executive powers. Pollsters say support for each side is evenly matched.
Erdogan argues that Turkey needs a strong hand to face the threats from the Islamic State (ISIS), Kurdish separatist militants and hostile powers in the Middle East and Europe. Opposition leaders accuse Erdogan of trying to become a dictator and using the emergency rule declared after a failed July coup to crack down on all opposition.
Established in 1924 by an associate of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Cumhuriyet is Turkey’s oldest national daily newspaper and a symbol of the secular order that dominated the country for decades until Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.
Former Cumhuriyet editor Can Dundar rejected the allegations in a YouTube video. Dundar fled to Germany last June after he was the target of an assassination attempt.
Speaking of his jailed colleagues, Dundar said: “It’s a scandal that they have been in prison for five months not knowing the charges against them.”
Prosecutors demanded prison terms of up to 43 years for the accused. The indictment said Cumhuriyet “from 2013 was practically taken over” by the movement of Fethullah Gulen. Turkish authorities say Gulen masterminded the coup attempt through a shadowy network they call the Fethullahist Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FETO/PDY).
Gulen, a Turkish Islamist preacher, ran a network of hundreds of schools across Turkey and the world from self-imposed exile in the United States and was closely allied with the Islamist parties in which Erdogan was a rising star in the 1990s. After the AKP gained power in 2002, graduates of Gulen’s schools filled the ranks of the civil service, judiciary and military.
Over the next decade, Gulenist prosecutors launched a series of cases against scores of secularist politicians, journalists, academics and military officers, accusing them of plotting a coup. Hundreds were jailed; a few committed suicide.
While the government stood by as its secularist adversaries were rounded up, Erdogan fell out spectacularly with Gulen in 2013 when prosecutors ordered the arrest of 52 people connected with the AKP, including the sons of three ministers, on corruption charges. They were accused of evading US sanctions against Iran by buying Iranian oil with gold.
The prosecutors were dismissed and jailed and the charges dropped but two of those alleged to have been involved in the so-called gas-for-gold scheme have since been arrested in the United States and face charges there of conspiring to violate US sanctions against Iran. Turkish ministers have accused the US prosecutors in the cases of being pawns of Gulen.
Among the Cumhuriyet journalists arrested was Ahmet Sik. While Gulenist prosecutors were in the ascendant, Sik spent a year in jail from 2011 for writing a book accusing the movement of infiltrating the police. He is in prison again, charged with aiding and abetting the Gulenists.
In a further twist, the prosecutor who ordered the arrest of the Cumhuriyet staff, accusing them of aiding Gulen, has been removed from his post and charged with links to Gulen.
As well as aiding the Gulen movement, the indictment accused Cumhuriyet of being a “defender and protector” of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) armed separatists and the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), which has carried out a number of deadly attacks.
While not being members of these groups, it said Cumhuriyet staff utilised “the methods of asymmetric warfare” in a propaganda campaign against Turkey and its president.
More than 150 news organisations have been closed down in Turkey since last year’s failed coup and around 150 journalists are in jail, more than in any other country.
Cumhuriyet, Dundar said, was a newspaper “that has warned throughout its history of the big threat” of the Gulen movement.
“They can’t find even a few lines in the newspaper showing help for these organisations,” Dundar said. So instead, he said, the accusations depended on contacts he had had with a former Istanbul governor, a police academy imam and a prosecutor, all since charged with FETO/ PDY membership.
Dundar said he once called the former governor concerning the heavy-handed police break-up of protests, had been involved in a civil court battle with the imam, but had never met the prosecutor, though the prosecutor had brought a case against him based on evidence from a wiretap.
“We are being accused of being in league with the prosecutor listening to our phones,” said Dundar. “The Justice minister who appointed that prosecutor, the members of the board who appointed him are all free, and the government which placed those prosecutors within the state are all in power.”