Charges dropped against 4 of 5 columnists

New York, April 11, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes a Turkish court ruling today to drop charges against four prominent newspaper columnists but deplores the decision to continue with the trial of a fifth. All five writers were charged over comments they made about an Istanbul conference last September on the killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

A court in the Istanbul suburb of Bagcilar dismissed charges on a legal technicality against Haluk Sahin, Erol Katircioglu, and Ismet Berkan of the daily Radikal, and Hasan Cemal of the daily Milliyet, local and international news agencies reported. But it ruled that the trial of Murat Belge of Radikal would go ahead. The judge said the cases against the four journalists had been filed after the time limit allowed by the law but that in the case of Belge the deadline had been met.

The trial had been portrayed as a test of freedom of expression in Turkey which is in negotiations to join the European Union.

Kemal Kerincsiz, a nationalist lawyer who brought the journalists to trial under two articles of Turkey’s penal code which had been revised ahead of the EU talks, accused the judge of political bias, the state Anatolian news agency said.

The journalists had faced charges of denigrating Turkish state organs and trying to influence the judicial process. If found guilty, they could have faced between six months and 10 years in jail.

“We are relieved that the court has dropped such unwarranted charges against these four journalists,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “It is outrageous, however, that journalist Murat Belge should continue to be prosecuted for his opinions in a democracy that is knocking on the door of the European Union. We urge the court to dismiss all charges against him immediately.”

The five journalists were charged in December 2005 under Article 288 of the penal code with attempting to influence court decisions through their writing. All except Berkan were also charged under controversial Article 301 of the penal code with insulting “Turkishness.” The charges stem from articles they wrote last year challenging the decision of an Istanbul administrative court to ban an academic conference on the Armenian killings, which are still taboo in public discourse in Turkey. Armenians contend that the killings from 1915 to 1917 constitute the first genocide of the 20th century, a characterization that Turkey rejects.

Figures compiled in February by human rights activist Nadire Mater’s organization, Bia, show that since the new penal code went into effect on June 1 last year, 29 cases have been brought against journalists under Article 301. Eight journalists have been convicted, and some trials are still continuing.

Seventeen journalists who discussed human rights cases, the Armenian conference ban case, and torture cases, have been charged with attempting to influence court decisions under Article 288 of the penal code and other press law provisions, according to Bia.

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