ANKARA, Turkey: Turkish prosecutors are seeking life prison terms for two prominent journalists who have been jailed on terror and espionage charges for their reports on alleged government arms smuggling to Syrian rebels, their newspaper said Wednesday amid growing concern for media freedom in Turkey.
The state-run Anadolu Agency said an indictment, prepared by Istanbul’s deputy chief prosecutor and submitted to court for approval, accuses the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar, and the paper’s Ankara representative, Erdem Gul, of collaborating with a movement led by a U.S.-based Islamic cleric who has become President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top foe. The indictment accuses the two of working with the movement to create the image that the government was aiding terror groups and to cripple’s its ability to rule.
Cumhuriyet, a center-left opposition newspaper, in May published what it said were images of Turkish trucks carrying ammunition to Syrian militants. The images reportedly date back to January 2014, when local authorities searched Syria-bound trucks, touching off a standoff with Turkish intelligence officials.
The paper said the images proved that Turkey was smuggling arms to Islamist rebels. 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 to Turkmen kinsmen in Syria.
The government has accused the journalists of helping the moderate Islamic movement led by Fethullah Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. 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 been engaged in any acts of violence.
The journalists were investigated after Erdogan said he would not let Dundar get away with it and filed a criminal complaint. Dundar and Gul were detained in November, heightening concerns over conditions for journalists in Turkey.
Last week, visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called on Turkey to protect freedom of expression and met with Dundar’s wife, among other people, in a show of support for journalists facing prosecution.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday defended the two journalists.
“We are absolutely clear that Can Dundar and Erdem Gul in publishing the stories on that subject were doing their job as journalists and no more than that,” said HRW senior Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb. “People have an interest and a right to scrutinize the conduct of their governments.”
Also Wednesday, representatives of major media freedom advocacy groups travelled to Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul where Dundar and Gul are imprisoned, to call for their release. They also denounced Turkish authorities’ denial of a permission to visit the two.
Associated Press writer Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed.