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Turkish exiled journalist Can Dündar sentenced to more than 27 years in prison on terror charges

Berlin — Turkish journalist Can Dündar, who lives in exile in Germany, was sentenced to more than 27 years in prison by a Turkish court Wednesday. The court accused the journalist of obtaining state secrets for espionage purposes. Judge Akın Gürlek also convicted him of supporting terrorism.

The 59-year-old journalist has lived in Germany since late summer 2016, and several trials are underway against him in Turkey. However, Germany is unlikely to extradite the former editor in chief of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet.

The most recent verdict was prompted by a report in Cumhuriyet from 2015, when Dündar was editor in chief. In May 2015, the anti-government publication had reported on alleged secret arms deliveries by the Turkish intelligence service to Syrian rebel groups.

According to Dündar's report, the trucks in which the weapons were transported through Turkey belonged to the Turkish intelligence service MIT. The truck drivers allegedly identified themselves as MIT members to the police officers who stopped the vehicles. The trucks had been stopped on two different days in early 2014 in Ceyhan in the Adana province and in Hatay. In both cases, the weapons were discovered under a cargo of medical supplies. The weapons were allegedly grenade launchers complete with projectiles and large quantities of ammunition for machine guns and other weapons.

Dündar allegedly received the information and photos of the smuggling trucks from Enis Berberoğlu, the former editor in chief of the major daily newspaper Hürriyet. Berberoğlu later became a member of parliament for the opposition CHP party. He was in prison himself until the summer of 2020.

Can Dündar seen in this photo taken in Berlin on Wednesday, December 23, 2020. CBS News

Other Turkish media had also reported on the arms smuggling. Aydınlık, a smaller daily newspaper, had published the report even before Dündar's Cumhüriyet but the journalists were never convicted for publishing the story.

But Dündar, on the other hand, had been sentenced in 2016 for publishing state secrets.

However, this verdict was later overturned when the Supreme Court had insisted that he should also answer for espionage. After three months in pre-trial detention, Dündar was released in early 2016 on the order of Turkey's Constitutional Court, shortly after he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt during a court trial. Dündar was sentenced to more than five in prison at the time, but managed to flee to Germany.

Indirectly, the 14th Istanbul Jury Court Chamber conceded in its latest verdict that Dündar may have been right in his accusation of illegally supplying weapons to Syrian rebels. Dündar received 18 years and nine months in prison for obtaining secret information "with the aim of espionage."

However, the charge of illegally publishing state secrets was dropped. The court also sentenced Dündar to eight years and nine months in prison for supporting terrorism. That charge has been leveled against most dissidents in Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt.

Can Dündar seen in this photo taken in Berlin on Wednesday, December 23, 2020. CBS News

The court in Istanbul based its verdict on a letter which was sent to the U.N. Security Council in 2015 by Bashir Jaafari, the former Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations. 

CBS News obtained the letter sent by Jaafari in which he complains to the UN that the Turkish government was trafficking arms into Syria. As an evidence of that, Jaafari is quoting, among others, the article of Can Dündar.

"Now the Turkish government is using this letter as an evidence of me spying for the Syrian government", Dündar told CBS News.

Dündar's lawyers boycotted the sentencing. They accused the court of acting on political instructions from the government and violating the defendant's rights. For example, they said, the court had deliberated on the case several times without the defense.

Since Dündar fled to Germany, all his assets in Turkey had been confiscated a few months ago.

"We were expecting this outcome for five years" Dündar told CBS News. "They were trying to find the right judge who would make this silly verdict because it's not easy to charge someone for spying without any evidence."

"Now they have a letter by a Syrian official who simply quotes various reporting on the weapons delivery, and the Turkish judges call that evidence. It's ridiculous," he added.

The opposition calls the judge Akın Gürlek "Erdoğan's trigger".

Also Dündar's wife, Dilek — who joined her husband in exile in summer 2019 — called the sentencing a joke: "Can became Bond 008 just overnight — this is ridiculous." 

Dündar will now go to the European Court of Human Rights. "My lawyers will appeal to the High Court but I don't expect anything from it because it's under control of Erdoğan," Dündar told CBS News.

"Everyone knows that these decisions and rulings are political and not judicial," he pointed out.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had repeatedly called Dündar an "agent." He also rejected on Wednesday a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which had demanded in the highest instance the release of the Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş. As a consequence, Turkey's exclusion from the Council of Europe is now likely to be on the agenda.

Critics of the Erdoğan government see the decision in the Dündar case as further evidence that Turkey is moving further and further away from European legal norms. The Strasbourg Human Rights Court had demanded on Tuesday the release of the Kurdish politician Demirtaş, who has been in pre-trial detention for more than four years. Demirtaş is being held in detention for political reasons, the European judges said.

The Strasbourg court also demanded the release of democracy activist Osman Kavala, who has been in prison for more than three years. Like Dündar, Demirtaş and Kavala had been publicly denounced by Erdoğan as enemies of the state.

As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is obliged to implement the Strasbourg verdicts. However, in the case of Demirtaş and Kavala, Ankara refuses to do so.

Turkey is regularly criticized internationally for its systematic restriction of press freedom. The country currently ranks 154th in the Reporters Without Borders organization's international press freedom ranking.

This verdict is deterring for other journalists, said Dündar. "Who would now publish such a story knowing that they might face decades in prison?"

But he remains optimistic: "Once the political climate changes, all these court rulings will become invalid."

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