Can Dündar, editor of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, were sentenced to prison on May 6, 2016, on charges of obtaining and revealing state secrets, Human Rights Watch said today. Dündar was sentenced to five years and 10 months, and Gül was sentenced to five years.

“The decision to sentence Dündar and Gül to long prison terms for publishing the news shows how courts in Turkey comply with President Erdoğan’s campaign of revenge against critics,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This has been a political trial from the start and part of the ongoing crackdown on journalism and on reporting on issues the public has a right to know about.”

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, accompanied by his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul, talks to media as they leave the Justice Palace in Istanbul, Turkey on May 6, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

The two journalists were acquitted on charges of attempting a coup d’état. Charges of aiding an armed organization were separated out from the main case file and may become a separate proceeding against the two. The evidence cited against them consisted of a news report and photographs published in their own newspaper on May 29, 2015, about arms shipments to Syria through Turkey. Lawyers for Dündar and Gül will appeal the conviction. Both men were released in February 2016, from a 92-day spell in pretrial detention and will remain at liberty pending their appeal.

In another dramatic development on the day of the conviction, as Dündar was awaiting the verdict outside the courthouse in the early evening, a gunman shouted “traitor” at him and fired two shots. He escaped injury but an NTV reporter, Yağız Şenkal, was lightly injured in the leg. The gunman, identified as Murat Şahin, 40, was caught and detained.

“The attempted shooting of a journalist, along with the trumped up charges against him, is a sinister development that readily recalls the case of Hrant Dink and other journalists gunned down in Turkey,” said Sinclair-Webb. “There should be a full investigation into the shooting to determine what lay behind it and to bring the gunman and anyone else responsible to justice.”

At the first hearing in the two men’s trial on March 26, Istanbul Heavy Penal Court no. 14 ruled that the entire trial should be closed to the public and the media on the grounds that some of the evidence pertained to state secrets. The court also ruled that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) could be interested parties (complainants) in the case, a decision that implies they are the directly injured parties. This exceptional step constituted an undue interference in the independence of the judicial process, and could lead to a violation of the right of the defendants to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.

The Istanbul prosecutor’s indictment, prepared in January, followed a criminal investigation that began on May 29, 2015, when Cumhuriyet, a national daily, published a front-page news story saying that Turkey had shipped arms to the armed opposition in Syria. The article appeared under Dündar’s byline and included photographs and a link to an online video purporting to show large quantities of mortar shells, grenade launchers, and ammunition hidden in a Turkish truck bound for Syria in January 2014.

In publishing the story and images, the newspaper challenged Turkish government claims over more than a year that the trucks had been part of an operation run by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) to transport humanitarian assistance to Syria.

There has been controversy over allegations that trucks have transferred weapons through Turkey to Syria since January 2014, when public prosecutors in Turkey’s southern city of Adana attempted to investigate the allegations. Because the government had not sought parliamentary authorization to supply weapons to Syrian opposition groups, the whole incident raised serious questions about the extent of Turkey’s involvement in the conflict in Syria.

In the days following publication of the report, both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who stepped down this week, and President Erdoğan accused the newspaper and its editor of spying. Erdoğan, in a May 31, 2015 television interview, stated that, “The person who wrote this news shall pay a heavy price for it, I won’t just let it go.”

On June 2, Erdoğan lodged a separate complaint with the Ankara prosecutor against Dündar, accusing him of publishing “fake images and information” and of crimes including espionage, a coup attempt, and aiding an illegal organization. These allegations are reflected in the charges against the two journalists. Dündar and Gül were detained on November 26. They were released from prison on February 26, after the Constitutional Court ruled that their pretrial detention was unlawful, arbitrary, and disproportionate, and interfered with their right to freedom of expression. Erdoğan strongly criticized the court’s decision.

On May 8, 2015, four prosecutors and a gendarmerie officer involved in investigating the trucks heading for Syria were jailed and put on trial on charges of “obtaining and revealing information pertaining to state security” and “attempting to overthrow the government, or partial or total prevention of government duties.” Their trial at the Court of Cassation 16th Penal Chamber continues.

Prosecutors twice acted on tip-offs and sought to examine the contents of trucks, though the Justice Ministry told them they had no authority to do so, contending that they were part of an intelligence agency operation to carry humanitarian assistance to Syria.

In response to the prosecutors’ attempts to investigate the arms transfers and Cumhuriyet’s reporting, Turkey’s president and government have demonstrated their intention to prevent any legal or journalistic scrutiny of Turkish intelligence operations, Human Rights Watch said.