A prominent Turkish journalist has been sentenced in absentia to more than 27 years in jail on terrorism-related charges that his legal team have described as politically motivated.
Can Dündar, who edited Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper before fleeing to Germany in 2016, was previously found guilty by an Istanbul court of espionage and aiding an armed terrorist organization.
His lawyers refused to attend the final hearing on Wednesday, saying in a written statement beforehand that “we do not want to be part of a practice to legitimize a previously decided, political verdict”. They will appeal the verdict.
“The message the Turkish government is sending here by punishing a journalist so harshly is that ‘If you cover sensitive issues this is what will happen to you.’ My fear is this verdict will further deter journalists still in Turkey from doing their job.”
“It is sad and strange that we knew what the verdict in my case would be before the case even ended. There are no means to defend yourself in Turkey anymore because the judges and judiciary cannot be trusted,” Dündar told the Guardian.
Dündar, a vocal critic of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is one of the most well-known of thousands of Turkish journalists, politicians, academics, lawyers and civil servants who have been swept up in the Turkish state’s crackdown on dissent in recent years. Critical media outlets have either been closed down or bought by people with links to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). Almost half of Cumhuriyet’s staff have been jailed.
Dündar was sentenced to 18 years and nine months for “securing confidential information for espionage” related to his journalism, and a further eight years and nine months for aiding followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara blames for the 2016 coup attempt.
The government maintains that Turkey’s courts function independently and that its actions are justified by the severe threats facing the country.
Dündar and Erdem Gül, Cumhuriyet’s Ankara bureau chief, were first arrested in 2015 and sentenced to five years each in prison for breaking news of the alleged transfer of weapons to Syrian fighters across Turkey’s southern border on trucks operated by the Turkish intelligence services.
The report infuriated Erdoğan, who said at the time that the trucks were carrying aid to Syria and vowed that Cumhuriyet would “pay a high price” for publishing the story.
Turkey has since launched four cross-border operations and openly supports an umbrella of militant groups fighting in Syria’s civil war.
The pair were later released pending appeal, but Dündar was again sentenced to nearly six years in May 2016 for “obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the security of the state”. He was shot at by an assailant outside the courthouse during that hearing but escaped without injuries.
The supreme court of appeals reversed Dündar’s and Gül’s convictions in 2018, but an Istanbul court restarted their trial in May that year.
The Turkish authorities have already requested Dündar’s extradition from Germany and froze his assets in Turkey in October.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual global report, released last week, Turkey ranked second behind China among the world’s top jailers of media workers. It found that 37 journalists were arrested in Turkey in 2020 – fewer than half the number detained in 2016, around the time of the coup attempt.
“I am not in jail in Turkey anymore but my wife and I have still paid a very heavy price,” Dündar said.
“Everything I had is gone. After 40 years in journalism, we have to start again. That’s the price we have to pay for defending the truth.”