Wednesday 23 August 2017

Turkish pop star and journalists on trial over failed coup

Atilla Tas had written a newspaper column critical of the Turkish president
Atilla Tas had written a newspaper column critical of the Turkish president

A Turkish pop singer and 28 other people, mostly journalists, are being tried on terrorism charges over alleged links to a US-based Muslim cleric blamed by Turkey for last year's failed coup attempt.

The trial of Atilla Tas and other suspects, many of whom worked for media companies associated with cleric Fethullah Gulen, is under way in Istanbul.

They face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of membership in "an armed terrorist organisation".

Singer Tas wrote a newspaper column and posted satirical tweets about the country's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has arrested 41,000 people in a massive crackdown after the insurrection on July 15.

Mr Erdogan said the crackdown is necessary to restore stability to Turkey. His critics say many people have been unfairly targeted.

Mr Gulen has denied involvement in the coup attempt.

Human rights groups say Turkey has jailed about 150 journalists, many of whom were arrested before the botched insurrection, for alleged ties to Kurdish rebels who are fighting the Turkish state.

The Reporters Without Borders group ranked Turkey at 151st out of 180 countries on its press freedom index last year.

While critics say the detentions show Turkey is becoming more authoritarian, Turkish officials say the bulk of the journalists were jailed for illegal activities on behalf of enemies of a government facing numerous security challenges in the past year, including the Kurdish insurgency and attacks blamed on the Islamic State group.

Some journalists detained under a state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt work for the secular-minded newspaper Cumhuriyet, which is not associated with Mr Gulen.

The arrests of top executives and editors at Cumhuriyet have prompted accusations the Turkish government is trying to muzzle dissent of any kind.

Political polarisation in Turkey is also high ahead of an April 16 referendum on whether to expand the powers of the presidency.

The group whose trial started in Istanbul face allegations that they operated as the media arm for Mr Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.

Many worked for media outlets associated with Mr Gulen which have been shut or taken over, including the Zaman newspaper, which once had one of the highest circulations in Turkey.

It is a crime in Turkey to insult the Turkish president and nation, and many people have been prosecuted for doing so.

Such laws, which existed long before Mr Erdogan came to power as prime minister in 2003, have come under scrutiny in the last decade as Turkey campaigned for membership in the European Union and was urged to widen its freedom of speech rules.

But the EU bid has been adrift for years.

Turkey bans access to some internet sites deemed to be subversive. In the past, it has temporarily blocked access to YouTube and Twitter.

Also on trial in Istanbul, but in absentia, is Said Sefa, whom prosecutors say used the pseudonym Fuat Avni on Twitter to post taunting anti-Erdogan tweets and provide alleged insider information on the government.

Prosecutors are seeking a sentence of life imprisonment for Sefa, whose whereabouts are unknown.

In a separate case, Turkey last month arrested the correspondent for Germany's Die Welt newspaper on suspicion of spying for Germany and other crimes.

Germany rejects the allegations against Deniz Yucel, who has German and Turkish citizenship.

He was detained after his reports about a hacker attack on the email account of the country's energy minister, who is Mr Erdogan's son-in-law.

Last week, Mr Erdogan said most people on a list of 149 jailed journalists were guilty of crimes such as smuggling bomb parts into Turkey from northern Iraq or attacking a police vehicle and election offices. Four were jailed for petty crimes, he said.

"I say, 'Give me the list of journalists in prison,'" Mr Erdogan said.

"I take a look: They are all thieves, child abusers, terrorists."

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