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ANKARA, March 9 (Reuters) - Turkey’s highest court overruled a five-year jail sentence against prominent journalist Can Dundar on Friday, saying he should instead face up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges, the state-run Anadolu agency said.
Dundar and a colleague from the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Erdem Gul, were both sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison for publishing a video purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria. They were later released pending appeal.
On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court should have sentenced Dundar on espionage-related charges, which carry a 15-20 year sentence, rather than the lesser charge of disclosing confidential information, Anadolu said. It said Gul should be acquitted due to lack of evidence.
Following his release, Dundar left Turkey and is now being tried in absentia. Gul remains in the country and is free while his appeal is in process.
For critics of President Tayyip Erdogan, Dundar has become a symbol of what they say is Turkey’s sweeping crackdown on press freedom, especially since a failed coup in 2016. Turkish authorities have sacked or suspended 150,000 people and detained 50,000 on suspicion of involvement in, or support for, the coup.
“Real ‘espionage’ is the secret transfer of arms into a foreign country. Those who report on it are journalists,” Dundar tweeted, in response to the report of the decision.
Dundar, in London for rehearsals of a play commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company about his life, dismissed the espionage charges as the Turkish government’s latest attempt to punish him for his critical coverage of Erdogan.
“If there’s a crime, it’s not mine but the government’s,” he told Reuters, adding that he had not yet seen the ruling.
Dundar said his wife, Dilek Dundar, continued to challenge Turkey’s ban on her departure from the country, with her case now before Turkey’s constitutional court.
Last month, Turkey sentenced six other journalists, including two prominent brothers, to life in jail for aiding plotters of the 2016 failed coup.
Mehmet Altan, an economics professor and journalist, and his brother Ahmet, also a journalist, were accused of giving coded messages on a television talk show a day before the abortive military putsch. Nazli Ilicak, another well-known journalist, was also among those sentenced. All six have denied the charges.
The government says its security measures are necessary given the multiple threats it faces. (Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)