Turkey journalists reject 'terror' claims as trial opens

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Istanbul (AFP) - Staff from one of Turkey's most respected opposition newspapers on Monday rejected as absurd "terror" charges laid against them, on the first day of a trial which has intensified alarm over press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The 17 defendants from Cumhuriyet daily were detained from October last year and a dozen of them have now spent more than eight months in jail.

They have been held under a state of emergency imposed after the July 15, 2016 failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan that the authorities blame on US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.

The case has further raised tensions between Turkey and the European Union, in particular Germany, which fears the crackdown is being used to target any critic of Erdogan.

The Cumhuriyet journalists, cartoonists and executives were applauded by supporters crammed into the Istanbul courtroom as the trial opened.

Supporters released dozens of multicoloured balloons outside the courthouse, chanting: "Don't be silenced! A free media is a right!"

If convicted, the journalists face varying terms of up to 43 years in jail.

In an extraordinary coincidence, the trial opened on Turkey's annual national day of the press which marks the end of official censorship in the Ottoman Empire in 1908 under Sultan Abdulhamid II.

- 'Illogical' -

Those on trial include some of the best known names in Turkish journalism including the columnist Kadri Gursel, the paper's editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, cartoonist Musa Kart as well as its chairman Akin Atalay.

They are charged with supporting in the newspaper's coverage three groups considered by Turkey as terror outfits -- the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the ultra-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and Gulen's movement, which Ankara calls the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO).

The indictment accuses Cumhuriyet of beginning a "perception operation" with the aim of starting an "asymmetric war" against Erdogan.

But supporters insist the paper has always been bitterly critical of the three groups, including Gulen's organisation. Gulen denies any link to the failed coup.

"To say I was in contact with FETO members is illogical and against good sense," Gursel told the court in a powerful testimony where he sought to refute the accusations charge-by-charge.

"There is nothing to justify my jailing -- nothing apart from slander," he added. "The claims are totally without basis."

Atalay said it was the authorities who were scared. "But Cumhuriyet will not give in... independence and liberty are written into the DNA of the paper," he said.

Cartoonist Kart meanwhile denounced the accusations against him as "unfair, unfounded and unacceptable".

- 'Test for Turkey' -

Cumhuriyet (Republic), which was set up in 1924 and is Turkey's oldest mainstream national title, has been a thorn in the side of Erdogan in recent years.

It is one of the few genuine opposition voices in the press, which is dominated by strongly pro-government media and bigger mainstream dailies that are increasingly wary of challenging the authorities.

Also being tried in the case is the investigative journalist Ahmet Sik who in 2011 wrote an explosive book "The Imam's Army" exposing the grip Gulen's movement had on the Turkish state.

Eleven of the 17 including Gursel, Sabuncu, Kart and Sik, are being held in custody. The trial will resume Tuesday and this preliminary stage is expected to last until Friday.

Since their arrests, Cumhuriyet has continued publishing the columns of the jailed journalists but with a blank white space instead of text.

"This trial is a test for Turkey," Aydin Engin, one of the writers on trial who was freed after his initial arrest. "Erdogan says justice is balanced in Turkey. Now we will see."

Being tried in absentia is the paper's former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, who was last year sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail over a front-page story accusing the government of sending weapons to Syria.

He has now fled Turkey for Germany.

- 'Criminalising journalism' -

Steven Ellis, director of advocacy at the International Press Institute (IPI), said outside the court that the case aimed at "criminalising journalism."

"If it works... then they will do it again and again," he said.

Turkey ranks 155th on the latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world press freedom index, below Belarus and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 166 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested under the state of emergency.

Erdogan, however, insisted in an interview earlier this month there were just "two real journalists" behind bars in Turkey and anyone else was jailed for offences including robbing ATMs.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said last month that the detention of the staff was arbitrary and that they should be immediately released and given the right to compensation.

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