A police officer is seen at a court in Istanbul, Turkey, on July 3, 2020. Turkey is slated to try two journalists for alleged membership in terrorist groups. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

Turkey to try 2 journalists for alleged membership in terrorist groups

Istanbul, August 31, 2020 – Turkish authorities should drop all charges against journalists Rawin Sterk and Selman Keleş, release Sterk from prison, and cease filing bogus terrorism charges against the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On September 2, the 34th Istanbul Court of Serious Crimes, in Çağlayan, is scheduled to begin proceedings against Sterk, a reporter at the Iraqi-Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, who has been charged with membership in a terrorist organization and held in prison since February, according to news reports.

On September 3, the trial is scheduled to resume for Keleş, a former photographer with the now-shuttered Dicle News Agency, who has faced charges of terrorist organization membership since his arrest in 2017, and has been free during his trial, reports said.

Both journalists are accused of being members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a militant group and political party that Turkey classifies as a terrorist group, according to those reports.

If convicted, the journalists could each face up to 10 years in prison, according to Turkish law.

“Journalists Rawin Sterk and Selman Keleş should never have faced trumped-up terrorism charges for their work, let alone have these charges hanging over them for months–and in Keleş’ case, years–thanks to Turkey’s slow and unjust legal system,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must immediately release Sterk, who remains at high risk in prison amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and drop the charges against both journalists.”

The gendarme in Turkey’s western Edirne province detained Sterk and at least four other journalists on February 29, 2020, while they were covering refugees moving through the country from Syria, as CPJ documented at the time.

While the other journalists were released, an Ankara court formally arrested Sterk on March 6 and charged him with making terrorist propaganda, as CPJ documented. In a June 24 indictment, which CPJ reviewed, the prosecution changed those charges to membership in a terrorist group, and alleged that Sterk was a member of the PKK and the Group of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK, an umbrella organization of pro-Kurdish groups that includes the PKK.

The prosecution has presented pictures and videos from Sterk’s digital devices, his employment at news outlets that allegedly supported those groups, and his social media posts as evidence, according to the indictment. Sterk is being held at the Sincan Prison in Ankara, according to reports. His lawyer, Özcan Kılıç, denied all the charges against him, according to the indictment.

On March 20, 2017, authorities detained Keleş after he photographed a municipal building in the eastern province of Van, and held him for eight months, as CPJ documented. He was freed on bail on November 21, 2017, according to reports. He also denied the charges against him, reports said.

CPJ emailed the Justice Ministry of Turkey for comment but did not receive any reply.