A court in Turkey sentenced six journalists to life in prison Friday for their alleged involvement in a failed 2016 coup attempt. The decision came shortly after another reporter who had been controversially imprisoned was conditionally released from custody.
Prominent journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak and three other media workers were convicted of crimes against the state, a charge that governments around the world are increasingly employing as a tactic to instill fear in and silence journalists who are critical of ruling authorities.
One other defendant in the case was acquitted.
Press freedom groups around the world were quick to condemn the court's ruling. Turkey is now the world's No. 1 jailer of journalists, with more than 70 behind bars.
“Press freedom in Turkey has hit rock bottom. The shock of life sentences for ill-defined, evidence-free prosecutions of journalists accused of airing dissenting views is an abomination. Every day those journalists spend in jail will be a day of mourning for the rule of law and free expression in Turkey,” Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Pen America, told The Washington Post.
News that Deniz Yucel, a German Turkish national, was released earlier Friday was initially greeted as progress. Yucel marked a year in prison Wednesday without trial. But those hopes were quickly dashed with the verdict against the six others, delivered in the same court complex that processed Yucel's release.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in an attempt to win Yucel's freedom. Before being released, Yucel was officially charged with spreading pro-terrorist propaganda for his writings in support of Kurdish opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We know there are other, perhaps not as prominent, people who remain in Turkish jails,” Merkel said. “For them, too, we hope for a speedy processing of the legal cases.”
Yucel's release was conditional, but it is unclear whether he will stand trial. The six convicted Friday probably will not fare as well, as they lack the critical international media and government support that Yucel received.
“It doesn't say much that Deniz was released hours earlier and then these journalists were sentenced to life imprisonment, other than it's a shining example of the emotional roller coaster we've become accustomed to in the sham trials against the press in Turkey,” Johann Bihr, head of Reporters Without Borders' Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told The Washington Post via email. “In the past, we've even seen releases of journalists ordered by a court, only to be canceled at the last minute, so we're not really able to enjoy much good news that comes along because we do not know to what extent it will be canceled out by other bad news.”