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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.  (Photo: public domain)

Amid Crackdown on Dissent, Nobel Laureates Demand Freedom for Turkish Journalists

Case of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, who face life in prison, demonstrates "the sorry state of freedom of expression in Turkey"

Andrea Germanos

In a letter denouncing the "the increasing climate of fear and censorship and the stifling of critical voices in Turkey," over 100 noted international writers including Nobel laureates urge Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to free two journalists facing potential life sentences.

Signatories to the PEN International letter, dated Thursday, include Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Monica Ali, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Yann Martel.

"In recent years," the letter states, "the Turkish authorities have made extraordinary efforts to silence critics and dissent, as documented in PEN's recent report on free expression in the country. This has had an impact on all areas of Turkish society, from the harsh repression of peaceful protesters in Gezi Park; to the increasing crackdown on freedom of expression online; to the arrest and detention of dozens of writers, journalists and academics."

The letter points to an uptick over the past year in developments that stifle free speech, and that crackdown was illustrated just last week when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that he wanted the country to redefine its anti-extremism law to include journalists, politicians, and academics.

A specific case the PEN letter points to is that of Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the newspaper's Ankara bureau chief. The two face trial on Friday. As Agence France Presse reports, they

are charged with revealing state secrets “for espionage purposes”, seeking to “violently” overthrow the government and aiding an “armed terrorist organization”.

The pair already spent three months in pre-trial detention over a story in the leading opposition newspaper in May, which accused the government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms to rebels in Syria.

In February, the Constitutional Court — one of the last Turkish institutions that Erdogan does not have under his full control — ordered their release, ruling their right to free speech had been violated.

The Cumhuriyet article, which was backed up by pictures and a video, showed a consignment of weapons from the Turkish intelligence service being intercepted at the Syrian border in January 2014.

"The person who published this story as an exclusive story will, I believe, pay a high price for this," CNN reports Erdogan as saying after the story was published. "I will not let him be."

The writers argue: "We believe that Can Dündar and Erdem Gül are facing life in prison simply for carrying out their legitimate work as journalists."

Though the Constitutional Court found that their detention was illegal, the potential life sentences remain, without any provision for a pardon.

PEN International President Jennifer Clement added in a press statement that their case illustrates "the sorry state of freedom of expression in Turkey. Sadly their cases are not unique. There are over 20 other writers languishing behind bars as well as scores of others who are under investigation or on trial simply for peacefully exercising their right to free expression."

As such, the letter urges freedom for "all writers imprisoned in Turkey simply for their peaceful exercise of free speech," and calls on the government "to drop similar charges against all others, including Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, and to amend or repeal all legislation which unduly restricts freedom of expression."

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