An Istanbul court has ruled that well-known Turkish journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül will stand trial behind closed doors on charges of espionage and divulging state secrets.
In a case that has drawn international attention and harsh criticism, prosecutors are seeking multiple life sentences for Dündar, editor-in-chief of the leading opposition daily Cumhuriyet and Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, for publishing a story that said Turkey was delivering arms to Islamist rebels in Syria.
The paper’s revelations, published in May 2015, infuriated the Turkish president,Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said that Dündar would “pay a heavy price” and personally filed a criminal complaint against the journalists for what he has portrayed as part of an attempt to undermine Turkey’s global standing.
The court named Erdoğan on Friday as the complainant in the case as it also announced the case would be heard in secret.
The ruling drew condemnation from trial observers and lawyers who had come to the trial opening. Attendees, including opposition politicians and human rights groups, protested against the announcement with loud booing and chanting.
The prosecutor cited security concerns for his request and said parts of the evidence that were to be presented in court included state secrets.
Lawyers and rights groups argued that this evidence could be read in a closed hearing, while the rest of the trial should remain open to the public.
“The judge’s decision to hold the entire trial behind closed doors is illegal and has no basis in law,” said Akin Atalay, one of the journalist’s lawyers in the case. “But nothing surprises us anymore in this country, where regular justice does not seem to apply.”
The story was based on a 2014 video purporting to show Turkey’s state intelligence agency helping to transport weapons to Syria. Erdoğan has acknowledged that the lorries, which were stopped by Turkish paramilitary forces and police officers en route to the Syrian border, belonged to the intelligence agency but said they were carrying aid to Turkmen rebels in Syria. Turkmen fighters are battling both the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and Isis.
A 473-page indictment against the journalists accuses Dündar and Gül of aiding a “terrorist” network led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former Erdoğan ally turned foe.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Human Rights Watch researcher who attended the hearing as an observer, called the closed-court ruling a travesty.
“Journalism is on trial in this case. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government have clearly shown that they do not want any scrutiny of government policies and the incidents [the journalists reported on].”