ISTANBUL • Two Turkish journalists went on trial in Istanbul yesterday facing possible life terms on hugely controversial espionage charges, with the court banning the public from a case seen as a test of press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of leading opposition daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, his Ankara bureau chief, are charged with espionage and revealing state secrets over a story accusing the government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms to rebels in Syria.
The judge ordered the trial to be held behind closed doors, granting a request by the prosecution which cited security concerns around the highly controversial case. The court also accepted President Erdogan as a co-plaintiff in the case, a Reuters witness said.
Around 200 supporters gathered outside the courthouse applauded the reporters as they arrived for the start of the trial, chanting various slogans including "You will not silence press freedom".
"We are here to defend journalism," Dundar said. "We will defend journalism and the right of the public to be told the truth."
PUBLIC'S RIGHT TO TRUTH
We are here to defend journalism. We will defend journalism and the right of the public to be told the truth. ''
CAN DUNDAR, editor-in-chief of leading opposition daily Cumhuriyet
"It's not just about us," he added. "Many fellow journalists are in prison... We will see today whether the law is respected in Turkey."
Cumhuriyet's report sparked a furore when it was published last May, fuelling speculation about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict and its alleged ties to Islamist groups in the country. Mr Erdogan reacted furiously to the allegations, personally warning Dundar he would "pay a heavy price".
In a sign of the sensitivity of the case, several European Union consuls to Istanbul were at the proceedings yesterday.
Dundar, 54, and Gul, 49, were arrested last November and held for three months in pre-trial detention before being released from prison in February on the orders of the Constitutional Court. The court is one of the last institutions in the country not under the full control of Mr Erdogan, who can call on the support of the army, government and Parliament.
Prosecutors have asked for the journalists to be sentenced to two life terms and 30 additional years.
Dundar has vowed to use the case to put the state's foreign policy, including its role in Syria, in the dock.
The prosecution of the journalists has sparked outrage among opposition and human rights groups in Turkey as well as in the West, where it is seen as proof of Mr Erdogan's determination to silence his opponents.
"The trial of Dundar and Gul is a test for the state of law in Turkey," said Mr Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders. "Their release was encouraging but things are only beginning now."
In a letter to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, published in Britain's Guardian newspaper on the eve of the trial, more than 100 leading authors, including Canada's Margaret Atwood and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, called for the charges against the journalists to be dropped.
Almost 2,000 people have been prosecuted for "insulting" Mr Erdogan since the former premier became President in August 2014, Turkey's justice minister said earlier this month.
Around that time, the opposition Zaman daily, which is allied to Mr Erdogan's arch-enemy, the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, was forcibly placed under state supervision. "What happened to my newspaper is not an isolated incident, it is part of a continuing trend... of repression on the part of the government," Zaman's foreign editor Mustafa Edib Yilmaz told AFP.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS