Turkey's press freedom in the dock as top journalists go on trial

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Istanbul (AFP)

Two top Turkish journalists go on trial Friday risking life in prison on charges of espionage and other serious crimes in a case which has intensified alarm over a clampdown on free speech under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gul, his Ankara bureau chief, are charged with revealing state secrets "for espionage purposes", seeking to "violently" overthrow the government and aiding an "armed terrorist organisation".

The pair already spent three months in pre-trial detention over a story in the leading opposition newspaper in May, which accused the government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms to rebels in Syria.

In February, the Constitutional Court -- one of the last Turkish institutions that Erdogan does not have under his full control -- ordered their release, ruling their right to free speech had been violated.

The Cumhuriyet article, which was backed up by pictures and a video, showed a consignment of weapons from the Turkish intelligence service being intercepted at the Syrian border in January 2014.

The report sparked a furore, fuelling controversy about the government's role in the Syrian conflict and its alleged ties to Islamist groups in the country.

Erdogan, whose government has denied arming radical Islamist groups in Syria, personally warned Dundar he would "pay a heavy price" for the story.

In a sign of the gravity of the case, prosecutors have asked for them to be sentenced to two life terms in jail and 30 additional years.

- 'Turkish state on trial' -

The incarceration of the two journalists in November sparked outrage among opposition and rights groups in Turkey as well as in the West, where it was seen as proof of Erdogan's determination to silence his opponents.

Their release infuriated Turkey's leader of the last 13 years, who declared he had "no respect" for the court's decision, even threatening the bench with dissolution.

"I hope the Constitutional Court will not try to repeat this in a way that would call into question its existence and its legitimacy," he warned.

Dundar, 54, has made clear he will not be cowed and vowed to turn his trial on its head by putting the authorities in the dock.

"We are not going to defend ourselves, we will put the crimes of the state on trial," he told a press conference this month.

Dundar charged that Ankara's role in Syria's war had "triggered another civil war, this time in Turkey."

His remark was a reference to accusations that Turkey largely ignored the rise of Islamic State across the border until last summer when it finally stepped up operations against the jihadist group.

Erdogan's critics accuse him of doing too little, too late, leaving Turkey -- rocked by six suicide bombings in the past eight months, four of them blamed on IS -- vulnerable to attack.

- 'Government repression' -

The case is seen as a test for free speech in Turkey, which is ranked 149th out of 180 countries for press freedom by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media rights group.

Earlier this month, the opposition Zaman daily, which is allied to Erdogan's arch-enemy, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, was placed under state supervision.

"What happened to my newspaper is not an isolated incident, it is part of a continuing trend... of repression on the part of the government," Zaman's foreign editor Mustafa Edib Yilmaz told AFP.

The authorities have also launched an unprecedented offensive against critics of the military campaign against rebels from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the mainly Kurdish towns and cities of the southeast, accusing them of "terrorist propaganda".

"Turkey is going through one of its darkest ever periods for press freedom," RSF's Turkey representative Erol Önderoglu told AFP.

Using a hugely controversial legal article, almost 2,000 people have been prosecuted for "insulting" Erdogan since the former premier became president in August 2014, Turkey's justice minister said earlier this month.

In a letter to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, published in Britain's Guardian newspaper on the eve of the Cumhuriyet trial, over 100 leading authors, including Canada's Margaret Atwood and Peru's Maria Vargas Llosa, called for the charges against the journalists to be dropped.

But the government maintained its tough line.

On Tuesday, Davutoglu hit out at the "alliance of evil" of unnamed media outlets, academics and politicians whom he accused of acting in support of terror groups.