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Turkish Court Rules Opposition Newspaper Journalists Must Remain in Custody

Lawmakers and press freedom activists hold copies of the Cumhuriyet newspaper during trial of 17 writers, executives and lawyers of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper in Silivri near Istanbul, Turkey, Sept. 11, 2017.

A Turkish court remanded five prominent staff from the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper in custody on Monday in a trial which President Tayyip Erdogan's critics have condemned as an attack on free speech.

The court said the newspaper correspondents and executives, some of whom have already been detained for 10 months, should remain in detention until more evidence was presented.

"The court has decided to keep the arrested until witnesses are heard," chief judge Abdurrahman Orkun Dag said after a 13-hour session, adjourning the case for two weeks. "After hearing the witnesses, we think a more healthy decision could be

Prosecutors say Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric blamed by the government for last year's failed coup attempt, and that the paper was used to target Erdogan and "veil the actions of terrorist groups."

The newspaper has denied the charges and a defense attorney said on Monday that the court was ignoring evidence being put forward.

"As this is a political trial, material evidence is not taken into account," said Tora Pekin.

The court remanded in custody editor in chief Murat Sabuncu, executive committee member and attorney Akin Atalay and three other staff. The rest of the 17 defendants are either free until the next hearing or are being tried in absentia.

Atala's wife Adalet Dinamit said the charges against her husband were politically motivated: "This is not a trial held within bounds of law," she told reporters outside the court.

Previous hearings in the case had taken place in Istanbul but Monday's session was moved to Silivri, the site of a large prison about 60 km (40 miles) west of the city.

"Contradicting EU Values"

Prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for the newspaper staff, who stand accused of targeting Erdogan through "asymmetric war methods."

Social media posts comprised the bulk of evidence in the indictment, along with allegations that staff had been in contact with users of Bylock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by Gulen's followers.

Rights groups and Turkey's Western allies have complained of deteriorating human rights under Erdogan. In the crackdown since last July's failed coup, 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial and some 150,000 detained or dismissed from their jobs.

Around 150 media outlets have been shut down and 160 journalists jailed, the Turkish Journalists Association says.

"The charges are ridiculous, the case does not make sense," said Steven Ellis of the International Press Institute, who attended Monday's hearing.

Ellis said the future of Turkey's stalled European Union accession process could be decided by the outcome of the Cumhuriyet case. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the first time this month for the talks to be ended, saying Turkey was moving away from Europe.

"As long as they keep on trials like this, I don't know how accession process may go forward," Ellis said. "The case contradicts values that the EU puts forward."

Turkish authorities say the crackdown is justified by the gravity of the coup attempt, in which rogue soldiers tried to overthrow the government, killing 250 people, mostly civilians.

Cumhuriyet's former chief editor Can Dundar, who is living in Germany, is being tried in absentia. An arrest warrant for Dundar remains in force.