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17 Journalists With One Of Turkey's Oldest Daily Papers Face Terrorism Charges


Seventeen employees of one of Turkey's oldest daily newspapers went on trial today. They face terrorism charges that could land them in prison for up to 43 years. The journalists are among tens of thousands of Turkish people fired from their jobs or arrested since an attempted coup last year. NPR's Lauren Frayer was at the courthouse in Istanbul today.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The free press shall not be silenced, hundreds of protesters chanted. Many shoved their way into the courthouse, applauding the defendants as they filed in. Those on trial include the Cumhuriyet newspaper's cartoonist, book editor, accountant and 76-year-old editor-in-chief Aydin Engin, arrested last October.

AYDIN ENGIN: (Speaking Turkish).

FRAYER: Engin says he was in solitary confinement for five days and then freed pending trial because of his old age. But he worries for his co-defendants, most of whom had been in jail for nearly nine months. They're charged with helping groups the government considers terrorists - Kurdish rebels and followers of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the U.S. but the government accuses of orchestrating that failed coup, which he denies. Press advocates say they're on trial for criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Rights groups say he's jailed over 150 journalists.

JORGEN LORENTZEN: They have been arresting the most important voices. So when they imprison them, they also stop possibility for discussion, for openness, for critical thinking and so on.

FRAYER: That's Jorgen Lorentzen, who came from Norway to observe this trial. He works at PEN International, which supports freedom of expression.


FRAYER: As protesters sang songs for peace outside the court, an elderly woman shuffled up carrying a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923.

SEVIM TEKIR: (Speaking Turkish).

FRAYER: Sevim Tekir says she worries Ataturk's vision of a secular, democratic Turkey is being lost as Erdogan jails dissenters. It's part of a purge he says is necessary for stability. The country has been under a state of emergency for over a year. The Cumhuriyet staffers face up to 43 years in prison. At the start of today's proceedings, according to Turkish media, the cartoonist, Musa Kart, was asked if he had a criminal record. He replied, not yet. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFYVN'S "ASCENSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.