World

Turkish court sentences journalist Can Dündar to 27 years in prison on espionage, terror charges

A Turkish court on Wednesday convicted the former editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet on espionage and terror-related charges over a 2015 news story, a verdict the exiled journalist said exemplified the pressures on Turkish media.

Can Dündar was on trial for story accusing Turkey's intelligence service of illegally sending weapons to Syria

Exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar, pictured in Berlin in October, has been convicted in absentia by an Istanbul court over a 2015 news report. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

A Turkish court on Wednesday convicted the former editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet on espionage and terror-related charges over a 2015 news story, a verdict the exiled journalist said exemplified the pressures on Turkish media.

The court in Istanbul on Wednesday found Cam Dündar guilty of "obtaining secret documents for espionage" and "knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization without being a member," sentencing him to a total of 27½ years in prison.

Dündar fled to Germany in 2016, and he was tried in absentia. His lawyers said the proceedings did not adhere to the standards for a fair trial and judicial impartiality, and they did not attend Wednesday's court hearing in protest.

In an interview with The Associated Press at his Berlin office, Dündar called the verdict "a personal decision by the president of Turkey to deter the journalists writing against him."

Dündar was first charged in 2015 and tried and convicted in 2016 for a Cumhuriyet article that accused Turkey's intelligence service of illegally sending weapons to Syria. Wednesday's verdict came in his retrial.

The story included a 2014 video that showed men in police uniforms and civilian clothing unscrewing bolts to open the trucks and unpacking boxes. Later images show trucks full of mortar rounds. The Associated Press cannot confirm the authenticity of the video.

The news report claimed that the Turkish intelligence service and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not allow the prosecutor to begin an investigation into arms smuggling.

The story infuriated Erdogan, who said the trucks carried aid to Turkmen groups in Syria and that Dündar would "pay a high price." Cumhuriyet's Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul. also faced criminal charges in the first trial.

Turkey later intervened directly in the Syrian civil war, launching four cross-border operations.

'A cloud of fear over the country'

Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey at 154 out of 180 countries in its 2020 Press Freedom Index. Dündar said the trial verdict could have a further chilling effect.

"The problem is there is a cloud of fear over the country, so those decisions may deter some journalists in Turkey to write against the government, to write about the truth," he said.

"There are still brave journalists defending the truth in Turkey, but I hope the world will see much better now what kind of government we are struggling against," he added.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was infuriated by Dündar's story and said the journalist would 'pay a high price.' (Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted: "The decision against Can Dündar is a heavy blow against independent journalistic work in Turkey.

"Journalism is an indispensable service to society, including and especially when it takes a critical view of what those in government are doing," he said.

Dündar was accused of aiding the network of U.S.-based Fethullah Gulen, who the government says masterminded Turkey's 2016 failed coup. The prosecutor who ordered the trucks stopped and others, including military officers, have been charged with links to Gulen. Gulen denies the allegations and remains in Pennsylvania.

Turkey's official Anadolu news agency reported that the court thought Dündar's news report aimed to present Turkey as a "country that supports terror" domestically and internationally. The court said that perception helped Gulen's network, which used the story in its own publications.

Dündar and Gul were arrested in 2015 and spent three months in pre-trial detention. In 2016, a court convicted them to five to six years in prison for "obtaining and revealing secret documents to be used for espionage." Dündar was attacked outside the courthouse on the same day as the verdict but was uninjured.

After Dündar appealed the conviction, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the sentences in 2018 and ordered a retrial with harsher sentences. The retrial began in 2019.

Dündar's property in Turkey is in the process of being seized. He remains defiant.

"I am here, working as a journalist, and I don't have any fear anymore," he told the AP. "Because I was attacked by gunmen in Turkey, just because of these news [reports], now I am in exile, all our assets are confiscated. What else can they do?"

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