Turkey’s top court on Thursday ruled that two jailed journalists be released, local media reported, a decision lawyers said could set a precedent for dozens of other reporters jailed in a widespread crackdown under President Tayyip Erdogan.
The Constitutional Court ordered the release of Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay, ruling their rights had been violated, CNN Turk and other local media reported. The two, in prison for more than year, have been accused of links to terrorist groups and attempting to overthrow the government, charges they deny.
Officials at the Constitutional Court were not immediately available for comment. Lawyers for thejournalists did not immediately respond for requests for comment.
The two, along with a third journalist, Turhan Gunay, had argued their arrests were not legal and their rights and freedoms had been violated in pre-trial detention. Eleven of the court’s judges ruled in their favor, and six against, the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.
Gunay, a Cumhuriyet journalist, had already been released in September in a decision in a separate case. The court ruled on Thursday that Gunay’s rights were also violated by his time in detention, Cumhuriyet said.
Altan, a professor of economics and a frequent commentator in liberal media, and Alpay, a columnist, were jailed in the aftermath of a failed coup in 2016, when Erdogan launched wide-ranging purges that put more than 50,000 people in jail and led to the closure of more than 130 mediaoutlets.
Around 160 journalists have been jailed, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Association. International journalism groups say Turkey is now the world’s largest jailer of journalists.
Many of the jailed reporters have been charged with spreading propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of masterminding the abortive putsch.
Alpay wrote for the now-defunct Zaman, widely seen as the Gulen movement’s flagship newspaper before its seizure and subsequent closure by authorities. Gulen, a former Erdogan ally, has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999. He has denied orchestrating the coup and condemned it as against democracy.
Lawyers have said the case could set a legal precedent for how the court treats other reporters - including foreigners - now in jail in Turkey.
“The decision by the Constitutional Court on Mehmet Altan and Sahin Albay is correct, but insufficient,” Baris Yarkadas, a lawmaker from the opposition CHP party said on Twitter. “The (Court) should take a step to ensure the freedom of all arrested journalists. It should carry out its mission and end victimization.”
Erdogan has said that some journalists helped nurture terrorists through their writing. “Terror doesn’t form by itself,” he said last week at a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. “Terror and terrorists have gardeners. These gardeners are those people viewed as thinkers.”
(Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Dominic Evans and John Stonestreet)