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Journalists sent back to detention

(IPI/IFEX) - Istanbul, 22 November 2011 - A court in Istanbul today sent International Press Institute (IPI) World Press Freedom Hero Nedim Şener and other journalists accused of supporting a coup plot back to pre-trial detention while another panel reviews a motion to recuse the presiding judge for bias.

The order came at the close of the first day of proceedings in the case involving news website Oda TV. The government claims that Şener and others – including investigative journalist Ahmet Şik, writer Yalçın Küçük and Oda TV executive Soner Yalçın – served as the media wing for the so-called "Ergenekon" plot, in which secularists and ultra-nationalists allegedly planned to use terrorism to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government.

Defence attorneys at today's hearing argued that the presiding judge, Resul Cakir, could not be impartial because he sued one of the other defendants, Oda TV news director Barış Terkoğlu, in a separate proceeding over suggestions that a picture posted on Oda TV showing Cakir dining with other judges, prosecutors and police officers showed a cosy relationship.

The court decided to forward the motion to a higher court for a ruling, a process that is expected to take one month. However, the court denied requests by defence attorneys to release their clients from pre-trial detention while the matter remains pending, ruling that the detention would continue and be evaluated on 26 December.

Prosecutors had argued that the defendants' circumstances and the punishment they could face if convicted of being part of an armed terrorist organisation – in Şener's case, from 7 1/2 to 15 years – supported their continued detention.

Supporters of the defendants said following the ruling that they worried that it would give the government cover to blame lawyers for delays. They also expressed fear that the proceeding could be joined to the broader Ergenekon case, leading to further delays.

IPI Vice Chairman Pavol Múdry, a member of the board of IPI's Slovakian Committee who was at today's hearing with IPI Press Freedom Adviser for Europe and North America Steven M. Ellis, blasted the decision.

"It is simply unacceptable to put people in jail and deny them a free trial based on manipulation of the judicial system," he said.

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie agreed.

"It is bad enough to pursue Mr. Şener and the other journalists on apparently unsubstantiated criminal charges," she commented. "To hold him in pre-trial detention for over 250 days without publicly providing any evidence to justify such a step is even worse. But to put punishment before conviction is unconscionable and mocks justice and the presumption of innocence.

"Today's ruling is just the latest step in an absurd pattern of government conduct that has seen raids on Turkish journalists' homes and businesses, an unprecedented number of journalists imprisoned, supporting evidence that is thin at best, unreasonably long pre-trial detentions and, now, manipulation of the process. Journalists have a fundamental right to cover sensitive topics including national security, and those who are not shown to have engaged in criminal activity should not face arrest, charges, imprisonment or any other form of harassment or intimidation for doing their job."

Ferai Tinç, a member of IPI's Executive Board and the chair of IPI's Turkey National Committee, said: "This is a discouraging beginning. It is a very important process for us to see if press freedom will prevail in this country or not. We will continue to follow this case with great interest and attention."

Şener has been detained since March, following a police raid on Oda TV's offices. The raid took place after the website posted a video criticizing a police investigation into the Ergenekon plot. Lawyers for the journalists detained in the raid have maintained that evidence was placed on the journalists' computers by a hacker.

Múdry and Ellis were in Istanbul on a three-day visit to press for the release of Şener and other journalists. They are scheduled to meet later this week with the families of imprisoned journalists and with government representatives as part of a delegation hosted by the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella group representing local and national media organizations in Turkey, including IPI's Turkish National Committee.

According to the Platform, Turkey is currently holding at least 63 journalists in prison, apparently making it the world's leading jailer of journalists. Turkey's Justice Ministry in August acknowledged that number and said that only 18 had been convicted of a crime. The ministry reportedly declared that four journalists were imprisoned due to their writings, but maintained that the others were not in prison because of their work.

Şener is an author and investigative reporter for daily Milliyet. IPI named him a World Press Freedom Hero last year for his work, which includes the publication of a book blaming security forces for the 2007 murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Şener is currently the subject of an online petition calling for his release.

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