ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court released four journalists on Monday pending trial on accusations they were part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government, in a case that has become a focus for criticism of Turkey’s record on media freedom.
Among the four released were Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, two well-known investigative reporters held for just over a year in a top-security prison outside Istanbul. Six other defendants, mostly journalists, were still in custody.
Relatives, friends and colleagues of the freed journalists shouted for joy outside the court and some cried and hugged each other on hearing the news.
“Ahmet and Nedim are free”, people shouted, shocked at the decision. “At last.”
Sik’s brother Bulent Sik told Reuters: “Today’s decision was a surprise for Ahmet and Nedim. They didn’t expect it either”.
The defendants are accused of belonging to ‘Ergenekon’, an alleged ultra-nationalist group accused by prosecutors of being behind multiple conspiracies against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party government.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc welcomed the decision.
“One can only be glad at their release. It is saddening that they spent 375 days inside,” Arinc told a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara.
The United States, the European Union and rights groups have criticized Ankara’s prosecution of journalists which they say taints Turkey’s image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.
Ilhan Cihaner, a deputy from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a former top prosecutor, told Reuters outside the court that foreign pressure had played a role in the decision.
“The gradually increasing pressure from the EU and foreign media had a great effect on today’s decision,” Cihaner said.
Turkish jails hold nearly 100 members of the news media, one of the highest numbers worldwide, although the government says that journalists are not being prosecuted because of what they have written or broadcast.
The court based its decision on the length of time the defendants had already spent in prison and the low risk of them being able to tamper with evidence in the case.
Critics accuse the government of scare-mongering over Ergenekon to silence opponents. The government denies any such motive. Rights groups also criticized the length of time defendants remain in custody awaiting trial.
Lawyers for the defendants argue that computer documents central to the evidence against their clients were introduced by computer viruses and that this had been confirmed by investigations conducted by four universities.
If found guilty the defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison.
The next hearing is scheduled for June 18.
Sener and Sik have already set out their defense, calling the charges against them politically motivated and “a massacre of justice”.
Sik has written a book about alleged infiltration of the police by an Islamic movement led by reclusive theologian Fethullah Gulen, who is living in self-exile in the United States and considered close to parts of the ruling AK Party.
Sener is an award-winning journalist who has written about police negligence in failing to prevent the 2007 murder of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.
Several hundred suspects, including retired senior military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists have been detained in cases related to Ergenekon.
Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Ben Harding