Kurdish journalist given 138 years in prison in Turkey

New York, January 10, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by the conviction and outlandish sentencing of Emine Demir, the former editorial manager of the Kurdish-language daily Azadiya WelatDemir was given 138 years in prison in connection with dozens of articles in the paper. CPJ called today for Turkish authorities to overturn the sentence on appeal and end the persecution of journalists working for Azadiya Welat, the only Kurdish daily in Turkey.

A Diyarbakir criminal court sentenced Demir on December 30 to a year and a half per 84 separate counts of “spreading propaganda” for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to local press freedom group Bia. Additionally, the court sentenced her to12 years “for acting on behalf of a terrorist organization.” The news stories mainly covered Kurdish rights, according to Serkan Akbas, a lawyer from Diyarbakir who is familiar with the case. An arrest warrant was issued for Demir, who did not attend the court hearing but was represented by her lawyer, Servet Ozen. Ozen said that Demir did not act on instructions from the PKK, the Anatolia News Agency reported. He has appealed the sentence.

“We call on the appeals court to overturn Emine Demir’s outrageous sentence on appeal,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The Turkish authorities must stop punishing journalists who report on Kurdish issues–journalism must not be considered a crime.”

On May 13, Verdat Kurşun, the former editor-in-chief of Azadiya Welat, was sentenced to 166 years and six months in prison for spreading “propaganda on behalf of the terrorist organization” and “committing crimes on behalf of the organization,” according to the Dogan News Agency. Ozan Kilinc, also a former editor-in-chief of the paper, was charged with spreading propaganda of the outlawed PKK and sentenced to 21 years in prison. Both Kurşun and Kilinc are being held in Diyarbakir prison.

The government’s treatment of the country’s 14 million ethnic Kurds, most living in the east and southeast, has long been a focus of international criticism and domestic sensitivity. Forcibly assimilated into Turkish society in the 1930s, ethnic Kurds have sought greater political, linguistic, and cultural rights through both peaceful and armed means.

“The state is sending a clear message: They are not going to tolerate publishing in the Kurdish language,” Akbas said.

In December, the European Union criticized Turkey’s press freedom record in an annual report on the country’s progress to join the bloc. “Open and free debate has continued and expanded. However, prosecutions and convictions of journalists, writers, publishers, and politicians for the expression of nonviolent opinions has continued,” according to the report.