February 7, 2006

Turkey launches trial of leading journalists

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court on Tuesday began
hearing the case of five prominent journalists who face
possible jail sentences in a trial which is seen as a fresh
test of curbs on freedom of expression in the European Union
candidate nation.

Prosecutors filed charges against the columnists in
December for comments they made about a conference on the
massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire during World
War One.

The five men, who write for two leading papers, face
between six months and 10 years in jail if found guilty of
charges of "trying to influence the judicial process" and
"insulting state judicial organs."

Defendant Ismet Berkan, a columnist for Radikal newspaper,
accused those behind the trial of refusing to accept EU
standards on freedom of expression.

"This is a symbolic day for those who resist the EU. This
resistance may continue for some time with a few cases, but it
will end," he told Reuters outside the courtroom in the
Istanbul suburb of Bagcilar.

Prosecutors dropped a case against Dutch lawmaker European
Parliament member Joost Lagendijk last week. The same
nationalist lawyers who are behind the current case had accused
him of insulting Turkey's armed forces by suggesting they were
provoking Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey in order to boost
their own influence.

Such cases mostly end in fines or acquittal.

Four of the writers were charged under controversial
Article 301 of Turkey's penal code -- the same used against
Orhan Pamuk, the country's most famous novelist.

Pamuk was charged under a separate clause of Article 301
making it a crime to insult Turkish identity, but the case was
later dropped in a move hailed by the EU.

Defendant Haluk Sahin, also at Radikal, said: "Every case
is important because of the introduction of the new law. There
are blurred areas which have led to confusion and may need to
be clarified."

Four of the journalists work for the liberal Radikal daily
and the fifth for the centrist Milliyet. Both papers are owned
by Dogan Yayin, the country's biggest media group.

The journalists had all criticised efforts by prosecutors
and nationalist lawyers to ban a September academic conference
at two universities in Istanbul to discuss the massacre of
Armenians by Ottoman forces 90 years ago.