ANKARA (Reuters) - A Turkish prosecutor is seeking life sentences without parole for two prominent journalists on charges of assisting terrorists, according to a court document seen by Reuters, after they published video footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency helping to send weapons to Syria.
Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the secular Cumhuriyet newspaper, and senior editor Erdem Gul were arrested in November in a case that has drawn international condemnation and revived concern about press freedom under President Tayyip Erdogan.
The two are charged with intentionally aiding an armed terrorist organization and the publication of material in violation of state security.
Cumhuriyet published photos, videos and a report in May which it said showed intelligence officials transporting arms to Syria in trucks - allegedly to opposition fighters - in 2014.
Turkey’s involvement in Syria is particularly sensitive as the NATO member is under pressure to step up the fight against Islamic State militants.
Erdogan, who has cast the newspaper’s coverage as part of an attempt to undermine Turkey’s global standing, has said he would not forgive such reporting.
He has acknowledged that the trucks, which were stopped by gendarmerie and police officers en route to the Syrian border, belonged to the MIT intelligence agency and they were carrying aid to Turkmens in Syria. Turkmen fighters are battling both President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Islamic State.
However, Erdogan has said prosecutors had no authority to order the trucks be searched, and that they acted as part of a plot to discredit the government – allegations that the prosecutors denied.
A prosecutor is seeking two life sentences plus 30 years for each man, according to the 473-page document submitted to an Istanbul court on Wednesday and seen by Reuters. The sentences include one of “aggravated” life, which means no chance of parole and solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. It also limits family visits.
The court has yet to decide whether to accept the indictment, according to lawyers familiar with the case. Erdogan and the state security agency are listed as the two plaintiffs in the indictment. The court declined to comment.
Government officials have said the case is matter purely for the judiciary, not a political issue.
Dundar and Gul say the case has no legal basis. They told Reuters in a faxed message from prison last week that their arrest was instead designed to send a warning to journalists.
The government denies there is a political agenda behind the investigation, saying there was an “open breach of law”.
Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch expressed dismay, saying: “We are absolutely clear that Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, in publishing stories on the subject were doing their jobs as journalists and no more than that.”
European Union Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said on Twitter he was “shocked by life sentences” demanded for Dundar and Gul and that Turkey, negotiating for EU membership, must respect freedom of expression.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on a visit to Istanbul last week that Turkey was setting a poor example for the region in intimidating media. He met Dundar’s wife and son during his trip, according to Turkish media reports.
Following Biden’s comments, Erdogan said terrorist propaganda was not freedom of expression.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Editing by David Dolan, Nick Tattersall and David Stamp