ISTANBUL - A Turkish criminal court Friday convicted and handed prison sentences to six journalists and another staffer from nationalist newspaper Sozcu following charges they supported a U.S.-based cleric whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of masterminding a failed 2016 coup against him.
The Istanbul Court of Justice sentenced the journalists, including veteran columnist Emin Colasan, to prison terms ranging from two to 3½ years for backing what state media called the FETO secretive religious brotherhood. FETO is the Fethulah Gulen Organization, named after the cleric who denies involvement in the coup attempt. He lives in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. The Turkish government considers the organization a terrorist group.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Sozcu attorney Celal Ulgen said all the defendants had rejected the charges, which he described as politically motivated.
"The judges are afraid of their own future and their children's future," he said. "They want to throw the ball to the next court by condemning them for fear. … The judiciary is not independent in Turkey."
According to Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency, columnist Necati Dogru was sentenced to 3½ years in prison, as was Colasan, while Sozcu’s chief editor Metin Yilmaz and its online edition's managing editor, Mustafa Cetin, each received a sentence of just over three years. Online news editor Yucel Ari, reporter Gokmen Ulu and financial manager Yonca Yucelan were each sentenced to prison terms of two years and one month.
The court acquitted former Sozcu news director Mediha Olgun, who was first detained in May 2017 and held for 120 days.
A case against the paper's owner, Burak Akbay, who is living abroad and being tried in absentia, is to continue separately, Anadolu reported.
Sozcu has long been known for its critical coverage of Erdogan's ruling party. It is the second opposition daily to be targeted after Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper saw 13 of its reporters convicted in 2018.
Sometimes described as vehemently anti-government, Sozcu's staff are the latest in a long line of reporters, pundits, scholars and activists to stand accused of supporting Gulen, a onetime Erdogan ally-turned-political nemesis.
Erdogan and his supporters blame Gulen for the attempted coup and have long pressed U.S. officials for his extradition.
Ulgen says Sozcu denies any links with the Gulen network, and officials representing the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, say the paper is being singled out for refusing to be a mouthpiece for Ankara.
"When the court started this case, we assumed there would be a conviction," said Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a Turkish human rights lawyer and CHP parliamentarian, largely echoing the opinion of most defendants. "We foresaw this punishment."
"It is an empty case against us. There are no documents or witnesses against us," columnist Colasan said. "I want my acquittal without further ado."
Ulgen said a higher court was expected to decide whether to uphold the sentencing, adding that the journalists were currently free.
"There is neither judicial control nor any measure that restricts their freedom right now," the attorney said.
The case against Sozcu has intensified concerns about a crackdown on news coverage critical of Erdogan's administration.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Turkey was ranked the highest jailer of journalists in the world after China.
The Turkish Journalists Syndicate said at least 108 journalists or other employees in the media sector were currently imprisoned in the country.
The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.