Two Turkish journalists were in court Friday for a closed door trial as they face charges including espionage and trying to topple the government, with the public barred from observing the proceedings.

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

Many dozens of supporters, including lawyers and journalists, gathered outside the courthouse to support the pair, 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, pledging to defend their case. "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 against Dundar and Gul. 

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

"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.

The defence, which stresses that the public has a right to be informed about government policy, has argued that the trial should be held in the open, reserving secrecy only when needed.

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, denouncing insults.

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.

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. Its sales have plummeted. Other media houses have also met similar fates.

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.

This week, the Turkish government was outraged over a German satirical video which mocked Erdogan, with Berlin ignoring demands from Ankara to have it banned.

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