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Turkish court convicts former editor on terror charges

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Can Dundar the former chief editor of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet poses for a photo prior to an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. A court in Istanbul convicted exiled journalist Can Dundar on espionage and terror-related charges for a news report and sentencing him to a total of 27 1/2 years in prison. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

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 found Can Dundar guilty of “obtaining secret documents for espionage” and “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization without being a member.” It sentenced him to 27 1/2 years in prison.

Dundar 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, Dundar called the verdict “a personal decision by the president of Turkey to deter the journalists writing against him.”

Dundar 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 featured a 2014 video that showed men in police uniforms and civilian clothing unscrewing bolts to open trucks and unpacking boxes. Later images showed trucks full of mortar rounds. The AP cannot confirm the authenticity of the video.

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

The story infuriated Erdogan, who said the trucks carried aid to Turkmen groups in Syria and that Dundar 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.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 154th out of 180 countries in its 2020 Press Freedom Index. Dundar 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.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted: “The decision against Can Dundar 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.

Dundar was accused of aiding the network of U.S.-based Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government accuses of masterminding a failed 2016 coup. Gulen denies the allegations and remains in Pennsylvania.

Turkey's official Anadolu news agency reported that in reaching its verdict, the Istanbul court said that the 2015 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 also used the story in its own publications.

Dundar and Gul were arrested in 2015 and spent three months in pre-trial detention. In 2016, a court sentenced them to five to six years in prison for “obtaining and revealing secret documents to be used for espionage.” Dundar was attacked outside the courthouse the day the verdict was issued.

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

Dundar'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?”

Thiesing reported and Frank Jordans contributed from Berlin.