Turkish court jails four in pro-Kurdish newspaper trial, lawyer says

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court handed jail sentences on Monday to four employees of a now-defunct pro-Kurdish newspaper on terrorism charges, a lawyer in the case said, describing the verdict as politically motivated.

Ozgur Gundem newspaper was among more than 130 media outlets the government closed during a state of emergency it declared following a failed military coup in July 2016, in a crackdown whose scale alarmed Ankara’s Western allies and rights groups.

Some two dozen Ozgur Gundem staff were detained in 2016 as part of an investigation into their alleged links to Kurdish militants.

At the time, a court closed the newspaper on grounds of spreading propaganda of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union as well as by Turkey.

Eren Keskin, a rights activist and the newspaper’s co-editor-in-chief, along with two other Ozgur Gundem officials, were each sentenced to six years and three months in jail for membership of a terrorist organisation, lawyer Ozcan Kilic said.

Zana Bilir Kaya, the other co-editor-in-chief, was sentenced to two years and one month for spreading terrorism propaganda, he said.

Kilic also told Reuters he believed the verdict was political and harsher than in other similar cases, and that he would appeal it.

“The court gave a very harsh verdict. We thought it was related to the developments in the operation in northern Iraq. Courts are influenced by conflicts,” he said.

Turkish officials said on Sunday that militants of the outlawed PKK had executed 13 kidnapped Turks, including military and police personnel, in a cave in northern Iraq amid a continuing military operation against the group.

Critics say Erdogan and his government have eroded the independence of courts and the media since 2016. Officials say the courts are autonomous and that the arrests are a response to serious security risks.

Ozgur Gundem had focused coverage on the PKK conflict in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast and long faced investigations, fines and arrests.

The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 and more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones