Four Turkish journalists detained on charges of links to an underground anti-government network were released on Monday afternoon.
Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık are among four journalists who were jailed pending trial in the Odatv case. Thirteen suspects are facing charges of involvement in the media wing of Ergenekon, a shadowy network believed to have plotted to topple the government.
Şener and Şık were arrested in March and had been held in a top-security prison outside İstanbul since then. Their arrest raised concerns over media freedoms in Turkey. The United States, the European Union and human rights groups criticized the prosecution of journalists which they say taints Turkey's image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.
Two other suspects, Coşkun Musluk and Sait Çakır, were also released on Monday.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç welcomed the release of the journalists as a “positive development” without directly commenting on the ruling. “One can only be glad at their release. It is saddening that they spent 375 days inside,” Arınç told a news conference on Monday.
He said, “We should in fact question why the court didn't deliver this decision before.” Arınç said he hopes the court will deliver similar decisions in other cases as he was speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting on Monday.
The EU also welcomed the court's decision on Monday. Peter Stano, spokesperson of EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle, said the release of the journalists was “a welcome step.” He added that the bloc will monitor the case, noting that the progress report that is set to be released in the autumn would also mention the release of the journalists.
"The release of journalists Ahmet Şık, Nedim Şener, Sait Çakır and Coşkun Musluk pending trial is a welcome step," a statement from Füle's office said. "The Commission urges Turkey to address the structural problems that continue to undermine freedom of expression in practice, the right to liberty and security and the right to a fair trial. In particular, the provisions in the Turkish Criminal Code, the Anti-Terror Law and the Code of Criminal Procedures which lead to restrictions on freedom of expression need to be changed. The Commission will continue to closely monitor this trial and report on it also in the context of its progress reports," it also said.
Prosecutors say a number of documents seized from the news portal's offices include various strategies on how to manipulate the media and the public to get support for an investigation into Ergenekon. Şener and Şık are accused of establishing a terrorist organization, managing it, being a member of it, inciting hatred and animosity among the public, obtaining documents related to the security of the state, being in possession of documents that are prohibited from being revealed and violating the privacy of others.
With the release of four suspects, there are now six jailed suspects in the Odatv case. The İstanbul court rejected requests to release jailed suspects Yalçın Küçük, Soner Yalçın, Barış Pehlivan, Barış Terkoğlu, Hanefi Avcı and Müyesser Uğur during the same hearing on Monday. Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu welcomed the “belated release” of the journalists in a written statement and said he hopes it may open a “door of freedom” for other people, who have been unfairly deprived of their freedom.
The decision of the 16th İstanbul High Criminal Court overseeing the case came as a surprise. Relatives, friends and colleagues of the freed journalists shouted for joy outside the court and some cried and hugged each other upon hearing the news.
“Ahmet and Nedim are free,” people shouted, shocked at the decision, “At last.” Şık's brother, Bülent Şık, told Reuters: “Today's decision was a surprise for Ahmet and Nedim. They didn't expect it either.”
The court based its decision on the length of time the defendants had already spent in prison and the low risk of them being able to tamper with evidence in the case.
However, critics accuse the government of scare-mongering over Ergenekon to silence opponents. The government denies any such motive. Human rights groups also criticized the length of time defendants remain in custody awaiting trial.
Lawyers for the defendants argue that computer documents central to the evidence against their clients were introduced by computer viruses and that this has been confirmed by investigations conducted by four universities.
If found guilty the defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison. The next hearing is scheduled for June 18. Şener and Şık have already set out their defense, calling the charges against them politically motivated and “a massacre of justice.”
Turkey is holding nearly 100 members of the media in jail, one of the highest numbers worldwide. The government says they are not being prosecuted because of what they have written or broadcast.