- Two of the journalists have been in custody for 375 days
- Six other defendants remain in custody
- 100 journalists are jailed in Turkey, says the Committee to Protect Journalists
Four journalists accused of being involved in an alleged plot to overthrow the Turkish government were released on Monday pending the outcome of their trial in a case that is seen as a test of press freedom in Turkey.
Among the defendants released were Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, two investigative journalists who have been in custody for 375 days for their alleged involvement in the media wing of Ergenekon, an ultranationalist shadow government aimed at overthrowing the Islam-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party. Coskun Musluk and Sait Cakir also were released. All defendants in the case deny the allegations.
The court in Istanbul released the jailed journalists, citing the "likelihood of reclassifying the crime" as well as "time spent under custody," according to semi-state-run Anatolia News Agency.
"It is pleasing," said Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc of their release in a televised speech welcoming the developments. "Long periods under custody should not turn into punishment," he said.
Six other defendants remain in custody, including the editors of Oda TV, a hard-line secularist online publication that is critical of the AK Party.
"This is not just about press freedom, this is about freedom of expression," said Sik upon his release from a prison in the outskirts of Istanbul. "There are 100 journalists in jail but freedom of expression is not just a problem for journalists," he said, pointing out that 60 students and thousands of Turkish citizens are in jail because of Turkey's anti-terrorism laws that curtail freedom of expression.
A crowd gathered outside the prison to celebrate the release of the journalists, waving Turkish flags and chanting, "Free press cannot be silenced."
The AK Party has come under sharp criticism from the United States and the European Union for prosecuting journalists. Various press freedom organizations have been very vocal in their criticism of the Turkish government.
"The government must go beyond this mere gesture and release all journalists incarcerated under Turkey's vague penal and anti-terror laws. Fundamental reform of the country's legislation to align it with international standards is also essential," said the Committee to Protect Journalists in a press statement after the release on Monday.
Turkey has one of the highest numbers of journalists in jail in the world, with roughly 100 members of the press either convicted or on trial, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most are of Kurdish origin.
The government says the journalists are not being tried for their work. But critics believe the prosecutions are politically motivated and meant to silence opposition voices.
Previous to his arrest, Sik wrote a book focusing on the infiltration of the Turkish police force by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim preacher who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Copies of the draft book were confiscated by the police after Sik's arrest. "Justice will be served when those who made up these allegations against us are put in prison," Sik said after his release.
Sener, a reporter for the daily Milliyet, wrote extensively on the 2007 assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink before his arrest. Sener accused the state apparatus of purposely overlooking mounting signals indicating a plot on Dink's life. In the parking lot of the prison where he was released, Sener said he would continue his work to shed light on the Dink murder. "The truth cannot be imprisoned," he said.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for June 18.