Turkish journalists seek release in conspiracy case

ISTANBUL Fri Jan 27, 2012 4:33pm GMT

Journalists and their supporters gather outside the Justice Palace to protest against the detention of journalists in Istanbul December 26, 2011. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Journalists and their supporters gather outside the Justice Palace to protest against the detention of journalists in Istanbul December 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Murad Sezer

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish journalists in a high-profile case asked a court on Friday to release them from custody while they stand trial on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.

The United States, the European Union and rights groups have criticised Ankara's prosecution of journalists which they say taints Turkey's image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.

Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, investigative journalists held since March in a top-security prison outside Istanbul, were among the 11 detained defendants who appeared in court. Turkish media reports said they were expecting to be released.

Another two defendants who are not being held in custody are also being tried and one of them, Ayfer Iklim Bayraktar, gave her defence on Friday. The judge ordered other defendants to leave the court after Bayraktar cried repeatedly.

"I first came face to face with most of the defendants while detained or in the courtroom," Bayraktar told the court. "What sort of a gang is it when none of us knows each other?

"I am not a defendant of this case, I am a victim." If found guilty the defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Lawyers for the defendants argue that computer documents central to the evidence against their clients were introduced by computer viruses and that this had been confirmed by investigations conducted by four universities.

"The evidence which forms the basis for this trial is completely faulty," Sedat Celik, a lawyer for one of the defendants, writer Yalcin Kucuk, told Reuters.

Sener and Sik have already offered their defences, calling the charges against them politically motivated and "a massacre of justice." They signed books for spectators in court in a sign of the public attention attracted by their case.

Sik has written a book about alleged infiltration of the police by an Islamic movement led by reclusive theologian Fethullah Gulen, who is living in self-exile in the United States and considered close to parts of the ruling AK Party.

Sener is an award-winning journalist who has written about police negligence in failing to prevent the 2007 murder of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

The defendants are accused of belonging to 'Ergenekon', an alleged ultra-nationalist group accused by prosecutors of being behind multiple conspiracies against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party government.

Turkey is holding nearly 100 members of the news media in jail, one of the highest numbers worldwide, although the government says that they are not being prosecuted because of what they have written or broadcast.

Critics accuse the government of scare-mongering over Ergenekon to silence opponents. The government denies any such motives.

Several hundred suspects, including retired senior military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists have been detained in cases related to Ergenekon.

Among defendants in the case are Soner Yalcin, editor of Oda TV, and several colleagues from the television website known for its criticism of the government.

Also in the dock was a former police chief, Hanefi Avci, who has written about the alleged infiltration of the police by the Gulen movement.

(Reporting by Evrim Ergin; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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