A Turkish court sentenced six journalists and other media professionals to life in prison Friday, Turkey’s Anadolu state news agency reported, roughly an hour after another court freed a German-Turkish reporter who had been behind bars for a year.
The six were all sentenced for being associated with the movement of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey accuses of being behind a failed coup attempt in July 2016.
Journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak received life sentences on the charge of being informed about the coup attempt beforehand. Their sentence officially means they must serve 40 years.
They were also sentenced for attempting to disrupt constitutional order, as were Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül, who worked at Gulen-linked newspapers and a television station.
“This is a dark day for press freedom and for justice in Turkey and sets a chilling precedent for scores of other journalists facing trials on similar trumped-up terrorism charges,” said Gauri van Gulik, Europe director for Amnesty International, of the sentencing.
Freed journalist returns to Germany
Earlier Friday, a separate court in Istanbul freed Deniz Yucel, a correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, according to the German government.
The German-Turkish journalist was accused of spreading propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that the Turkish government has branded a terrorist organization. He was also accused of inciting violence in support of Gulen’s movement.
Yucel was detained February 14, 2017, and has always denied the accusations. His case had become a cause of serious friction between Berlin and Ankara.
A few hours after the release order, his attorney, Veysel Ok, tweeted a photo of Yucel and his wife outside the Istanbul prison.
Yucel arrived in Berlin late Friday, posting a message to the official Free Deniz Twitter page.
Yucel’s charges have not been dropped, and his trial will go ahead as planned. The Istanbul state prosecutor is calling for Yucel to be jailed for up to 18 years, Anadolu reported.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was pleased that Yucel had been released from jail and thanked those who had worked on his behalf.
“I am pleased for him, I am pleased for his wife and his family who had to endure a tough year of separation,” she said. “I want to thank the civil society in Germany who did not forget Deniz Yucel and others who are in prison.”
The order to release Yucel came a day after Merkel met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Berlin.
“It seems that some problems that occurred in the past in Turkish-German relations are solved today,” Yildirim said Friday. “We will take reciprocal steps to develop relations. We expect them not to tolerate terror organizations and not to allow activities that target our unity.”
Yucel was one of a number of German nationals imprisoned in Turkey last year as a diplomatic row between the two countries intensified.
Relations have since improved, and two high-profile prisoners – human rights activist Peter Steudtner and journalist Mesale Tolu – were released late last year, although judicial proceedings against them are continuing.
Five German nationals remain in custody in Turkey, “whom we must assume are held for political allegations,” according to the German Foreign Office.
Friday’s announcement coincided with a two-day visit to Turkey by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who held meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Yucel’s wife, Dilek Mayaturk, moved from Munich to Istanbul last year to be closer to her husband and tweeted regularly about his imprisonment.
As Friday’s news broke, she tweeted in Turkish: “At last!!! At last!!! At last!! Deniz is free!”
Ulf Poschardt, editor-in-chief of Die Welt, spoke of the delight among Yucel’s colleagues. “This is the most wonderful day in my career as a journalist. There are tears and cries of joy in our newsroom,” he said in a TV interview.
Dozens of journalists have been imprisoned without trial in Turkey since the failed coup, according to Reporters Without Borders. The country is ranked 155 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
CNN’s Atika Shubert and Isil Sariyuce also contributed to this report.