Can Dundar (C), Erdem Gul (R).jpg
Photograph: EPA/SEDAT SUNA

Two Turkish journalists were in court Friday for the first closed-door session of their trial as they face charges including espionage and trying to topple the government.

Dozens of supporters were present outside the courtroom, with the reporters facing a possible life sentence.

Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the editor-in-chief and Ankara correspondent respectively of the government-critical Cumhuriyet newspaper, published a report and a video in May about alleged arms shipments from Turkey to Syrian rebels, including hardline groups.

With the public barred from observing the proceedings, parliamentarians from the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) have been trying to gain access to the trial, but to no avail.

In the closed-door hearing, the court ruled against letting the CHP members of parliament into the room. Lawyers say they argued that the legislators have access to state secrets as part of their jobs and their presence should not be a concern.

“The parliamentarians were not allowed inside,” Dundar said as he exited the courtroom. “We will continue to make our defence, to fight our case.” He was greeted by cheering supporters.

The courtroom itself, at the end of a narrow corridor behind a turnstile-like gateway, is blocked off by guards and armed riot police.

Supporters, including lawyers and journalists, gathered in the morning outside the courthouse, some carrying signs saying "Free Press, Free Society." Human rights groups have called for the charges to be dropped.

Before entering court, Dundar sounded positive and even defiant. "In history, every time we have won. We will again win," he said.

The journalists, who are also accused of supporting a terrorist organization, could face life in jail. The indictment against them runs into the hundreds of pages.

The pair already sat for three months in jail but were released this year after the Constitutional Court intervened.

The decision to free them pending a verdict was blasted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has vowed the pair would pay a "heavy price" for their reporting and has been accepted as a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision to hold the trial without public viewing, made by the court last week, sparked outrage among leading human rights groups, saying it violated democratic norms.

The defence believes only selected parts related to state secrets should be held in private.

"The president is breathing down the neck of the prosecution and judges in this trial," Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey researcher with Human Rights Watch, told dpa. 

"The whole trial is about the right to information and the right of journalists to pursue investigate stories," she added.

Erdogan, who is in the United States this week on an official state visit, gave an interview to broadcaster CNN in which he insisted, "I am not at war with the press," but said there were limits to criticisms.

"We have laws in place and laws allow you to have freedom to the extent defined by law," he said.

European diplomats and supporters of the journalists had packed the courtroom on the opening day of the trial. Erdogan has since repeatedly lashed out at the diplomats, saying "this is not your country."

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said "it darn sure won't be the last time" the US sends observers to a trial of concern.

German Ambassador Martin Erdmann told Turkish reporters in Ankara that he was relying on media coverage of the trial, according to Hurriyet Daily News.

"We will now continue to follow the Dundar-Gul case from the media, due to the secrecy decision,” the paper quoted him as saying, stressing the importance of freedom of speech and a free press. 

“I acted in line with the rules," he said about attending the first session, adding that he notified relevant authorities.

Zaman newspaper, a mass-circulation opposition media outlet, was taken over by the Turkish government this month and later relaunched as a pro-government publication. 

Academics have also been arrested after signing a peace petition related to the conflict in the mostly-Kurdish south-east of the country. They are accused of spreading terrorist propaganda.

Turkey is currently investigating 1,845 cases against people for insulting the president, and press advocacy groups say there are 13 journalists in jail in the country.

After Friday's session, the trial was adjourned until April 22.

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