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Trial of Turkish journalists who reported on alleged arms smuggling to Syrian militants is adjourned

Supporters accuse Turkish government of trying to silence critics and attempting to cover-up arms smuggling scandal

Published 25/03/2016

Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, speaks to the media before the start of his trial in Istanbul, Friday, March 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Dominique Soguel)
Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, speaks to the media before the start of his trial in Istanbul, Friday, March 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Dominique Soguel)
Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, center, and Erdem Gul, the paper's Ankara representative, right, speak to the media before the start of their trial in Istanbul, Friday, March 25, 2016. A group of writers, including Nobel laureates, are calling on Turkey to drop charges against two prominent journalists who face life imprisonment for their reports, and to end its crackdown on free expression. Dundar and Erdem Gul, go on trial on Friday accused of espionage and other charges for their reports on alleged government arms smuggling to Syrian rebels. (AP Photo)
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Erdem Gul, Ankara representative of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, speaks to the media before the start of his trial in Istanbul, Friday, March 25, 2016. A group of writers, including Nobel laureates, are calling on Turkey to drop charges against two prominent journalists who face life imprisonment for their reports, and to end its crackdown on free expression. Gul, and Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, on trial on Friday accused of espionage and other charges for their reports on alleged government arms smuggling to Syrian rebels. (AP Photo/Dominique Soguel)
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar speaks to the press as he arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara editor Erdem Gul (R) arrive at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara editor Erdem Gul (R) arrive at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar (L) and Ankara editor Erdem Gul (R) hold hands as they arrive at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar (2nd-L) and Ankara editor Erdem Gul (R) hold hands as they arrive at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar (L) and Ankara editor Erdem Gul (R) hold hands as they arrive at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar (C), Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar (C), Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, waves as he arrives at Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Can Dundar, Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief, arrives at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016. Two top Turkish journalists are going on trial, accused of espionage and other serious crimes and facing possible life in prison over a story about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict that infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The trial of two Turkish journalists accused of revealing state secrets and helping a terror organisation over its reports on alleged government arms smuggling to Syrian militants has been adjourned.

Cumhuriyet newspaper's chief editor Can Dundar and Ankara representative Erdem Gul face life imprisonment if found guilty of charges of espionage and of aiding the moderate Islamic movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a foe of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The pair are on trial for publishing images that reportedly date back to January 2014, when local authorities searched Syria-bound trucks, leading to a stand-off with Turkish intelligence officials. Cumhuriyet said the images proved Turkey was smuggling arms to Islamist rebels.

The prosecutor asked that the hearing proceed behind closed doors, a request that was granted by the court, according to local media. Turkey's private Dogan news agency said the court also accepted that the Turkish president and national intelligence organisation should be claimants in the case.

Opposition politicians insisted on attending the hearing and refused to leave the courthouse, which meant that the afternoon session could not move forward, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. The panel of judges also decided to file a complaint against the legislators for attempting to influence the trial.

Representatives of international media advocacy groups, who are pressing Turkey to drop charges, also came to Friday's opening hearing to show their support. The trial is seen as a bellwether of the future of press freedom in the country, which has witnessed a growing crackdown on independent and opposition media over the past few years.

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The journalists were arrested in November after Mr Erdogan filed a personal complaint against the two. Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled in February that their rights were violated, leading to their release from jail.

Speaking to reporters as he entered the courthouse, Dundar said he was hopeful that the court would take the high court's ruling into account and drop charges.

"The Constitutional Court has already said that this news is not an act of terrorism but an act of journalism. So this judge, we hope, will approve this decision and drop (this) case," he said.

The indictment accuses the two of working with the Gulen movement to create the image that the Government was aiding terror groups.

The Government initially denied the trucks were carrying arms, maintaining that the cargo consisted of humanitarian aid. Some officials later suggested the trucks were carrying arms or ammunition destined for Turkmen kinsmen in Syria.

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Government officials accuse Gulen's supporters of stopping the trucks as part of an alleged plot to bring down the government. The government has branded the movement a "terror organisation" although it is not known to have engaged in any acts of violence.

Speaking in Istanbul on Thursday, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, criticised the authorities for treating journalists as a threat when the country is facing real terrorism. He also criticised Mr Erdogan, who filed the lawsuit against Dundar and Gul, for spearheading attacks against the media and creating an "atmosphere of fear".

A representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists also came to Turkey to attend the hearing. "They have done nothing wrong but committed the act of journalism," said Nina Ognianova. "They have covered a story of public interest that is important not only for Turkey but also the region and the international community."

The US Embassy has previously expressed concern over Mr Dundar and Mr Erdem's arrests and at the apparent pressure being exerted on Cumhuriyet.

"We hope the Turkish courts and authorities will uphold the fundamental principle of media freedom enshrined in the Turkish Constitution," the Embassy said on Twitter.

Turkey ranks 149th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders news media freedom index.

Death of journalist Serena Shim

On October 17 2014, 29-year-old American journalist Serena Shim reported that Isis militants and weapons were being smuggled across the Turkish border into Syria on trucks bearing the symbols of NGOs like the "World Food Organisation".

Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) accused Ms Shim of spying. Ms Shim said this was "probably due to some of the stories she had covered about Turkey's stance on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants in Kobane."

She later reported on air that she was "a bit frightened" by what MİT "might use against me."

Two days later Ms Shim reportedly died in car accident after her car was hit by a 'heavy vehicle'. Press TV, her employer at the time, said the death was "suspicious".

London-based political analyst Shabir Hassan Ali claimed Ms Shim had been "assassinated by the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan." Ali said: "Serena was hounded in a fashion by Turkish intelligence."

Sanlıurfa governor İzzettin Küçük said the claims were "completely baseless". Campaigners have called for the US to launch an investigation into the death. The US government said it does not investigate the death of US citizens abroad.

Ms Shim's sister, Fatemeh, gave an interview to Afshin Rattansi in 2014 on the show Going Underground.

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