Daniel Dombay / Financial Times
Two prominent journalists who had been imprisoned in Turkey for more than a year have been released from jail, marking an abrupt shift in a case that focused international criticism on Ankara.
Since their initial detention in March last year, Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, both investigative journalists, had become the best known of more than 100 journalists held behind bars in the country.
To their supporters, the case was the most potent symbol of an alleged authoritarian drift in Turkey under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister. Those in favour of the prosecution argued that it was a valid attempt to prevent the media being used to destabilise Turkey’s ruling party and its allies.
But on Monday the court announced that the two men would no longer be detained at Turkey’s maximum security Silivri jail, partly because of the time they had already been imprisoned.
“This will be seen as a release not only for the men and their families but also for domestic and international pressure that has built up on Turkey,” said Yavuz Baydar, a Turkish columnist, referring to criticism from the European Union and the Council of Europe and expressions of concern from the US.
“The realisation that the more lengthy detentions are, the less justice will be served, particularly in cases related with freedom of expression, now seems to have take root within the government.”
Two other journalists, Sait Cakir and Coskun Musluk, were also released. All four remain on trial for alleged terrorist offences but because such processes in Turkey can take years, and sometimes decades, Mr Sik and Mr Sener concentrated their efforts on getting released from prison to fight the case as free men.
The Turkish government insists that journalists in Turkey are not prosecuted for their professional work. But the prosecution against Mr Sik and Mr Sener focuses on their activity as journalists, alleging that the two men wrote books at the command of Ergenekon, an alleged terrorist organisation, as part of a destabilisation campaign against the government.
Mr Sik and Mr Sener have argued that writing books should not be a crime and that evidence indicating that they were following Ergenekon’s orders – a computer file on a media organisation’s server – was a clear fabrication.
In comments late on Monday night, Bulent Arinc, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, said he was relieved by the decision and had been anxious about the case for some time. Many of Mr Sik and Mr Sener’s supporters argue that the entity behind their prosecutions was not so much the central government as the Gulenist movement, an Islamic “community” widely thought to have great influence among Turkey’s police and prosecution services.
The prosecution against Mr Sik focuses on The Imam’s Army , a book he wrote describing alleged Gulenist infiltration of the police force, while Mr Sener wrote a book about the police’s alleged failings concerning the 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian journalist.
Sympathisers of the Gulenist movement say its influence over Turkish institutions is much exaggerated and that it has no political ambitions, focusing instead on moderate Islam and interfaith dialogue.
Even though Mr Sik and Mr Sener’s case was particularly prominent among the list of campaigning groups’ concerns about freedom of expression in Turkey, some supporters said that their release did not signal a fundamental change of direction.
“It is extremely good news,” said Hakan Altinay, chairman of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey. “But I don’t think it changes anything about the state of authoritarianism in this country. It just means fewer people have to endure completely pointless detention. Just because other people in detention are less known doesn’t make their cases less important.”
Most of the other journalists detained in Turkey are held as part of an investigation into a shadowy Kurdish umbrella organisation. Prosecutors in that probe have directly clashed with Mr Erdogan’s government, seeking the questioning under suspicion of Hakan Fidan, the country’s intelligence chief, a key ally of the prime minister.