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Journalists, Academics on Trial in Turkish Free Speech Cases

FILE - A demonstrator with his mouth covered stands outside the Istanbul courthouse, where Turkish opposition Cumhuriyet daily's editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul attend their trial, April 1, 2016.

The trial of two Turkish journalists accused of espionage and aiding a terrorist organization adjourned Friday and one of them expressed hope that the case was nearing acquittal.

Speaking to reporters outside the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul after their third hearing, Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, said that, finally, the court registered their cases as acts of journalism, keeping them separate from another case related to Turkish intelligence operations.

Dundar and Cumhuriyet’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul, could face life in prison for a story with images they published in January 2014, alleging the Turkish government smuggled weapons to Syria.

In another case, also related to increasingly restricted free speech in the country under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, four Turkish academics accused of spreading “terrorist propaganda” went on trial in the same courthouse in Istanbul Friday, for signing a declaration condemning Turkey’s military action against Kurdish rebels.

The four academics on trial and more than 1,000 of their colleagues signed the petition urging Turkey to halt its “deliberate massacres and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region." The petition infuriated Erdogan and led to the legal proceedings against them.

If convicted, the academics could be sentenced to up to seven-and-a-half years in prison.

"We are at the academics' hearing. The same groundless allegations," Dundar tweeted.

Hundreds of demonstrators, among them opposition legislators and university students, gathered outside the Istanbul courthouse to show their support for Cumhuriyet journalists and the academics, as riot police stood guard.

They were holding placards reading "Freedom for the pencils" and “Freedom for the academics" and "Don't Touch my teacher; end to dictatorship in university."

Demonstrator Gonenc Hacaloglu said that the journalists are being tried for reviling the ruling party and the government’s war crimes.

Some opposition legislators joined the rally as riot police stood guard outside the courthouse.

Garo Paylan of pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP (People's Democratic Party) said that journalism cannot be described as espionage for revealing misdeeds by the state and informing the public.

Rights groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the intolerance of dissent shown by authorities in Turkey. Since becoming president in 2014, Erdogan has prosecuted nearly 2,000 people for insulting him.

In the recently released 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey fell to 151st out of the 180 countries ranked by Reporters Without Borders.

Earlier this year, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited the country, where he criticized Turkish leaders for cracking down on freedom of expression.

Biden said the Turkish government was not setting the right "example" with its imprisonment of journalists and investigation of academics who have criticized the government's military campaign in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeastern region.