The trial of two Turkish journalists accused of espionage and supporting a terrorist organization for reporting on alleged arms shipments to Syria will be held behind closed doors, a court ruled Friday.

The decision sparked outrage and concern from leading human rights groups who warned the case was political. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the pair would pay a "heavy price" for their reporting.

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.

They were arrested in November and spent three months in prison before the Constitutional Court ordered their release pending trial, which could result in life imprisonment.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher with Human Rights Watch observing the trial in Istanbul, said the decision to close the case off from public scrutiny was a "travesty of justice."

European diplomats and supporters of the journalists packed the courtroom on the opening day of the trial, which comes just a week after Turkey and the European Union reached a deal on stemming migration and advancing Ankara's accession to the bloc.

Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, wrote on his Twitter page that the trial is a "test case for press freedom and rule of law in Turkey" adding that "responsible, independent journalism is not a crime but a pillar of democracy."

Even before the trial started, press freedom groups had argued the case had no merit and was a worrying sign of stifling freedom of expression.

"The journalists' right to freedom of expression is on trial. The case should be thrown out completely," Andrew Gardner from Amnesty International said, arguing the case had become "overtly politicized."

The court ruled on the closed-door decision after accepting Erdogan and the Turkish intelligence agency MIT as sub-plaintiffs in the case. MIT, which was allegedly behind the arms transport, appears to have pushed for the closed door trial.

The defence had argued against allowing the presidency and spy agency to be sub-plaintiffs, demanding the trial be held in public.

The trial is set to resume on April 1.

"We did not have confidence in fairness of trial," Gardner from Amnesty said, echoing concerns from nine press freedoms groups who urged the state this week to withdraw the charges, saying reporting on weapons shipments is a matter of public interest.

Before heading into the courtroom, Dundar spoke with reporters and defiantly defended the "right of the people to be informed."

Turkey is a staunch backer of the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and Dundar has argued the Turkish public has a right to know about any government support for rebels.

Last week, Turkey and the EU reached a deal on stemming migration which was sharply criticized by humanitarian groups and the UN agency helping refugees.

Rights groups also worried migrants would be sent back to Turkey, despite concerns over growing authoritarianism. 

"Today is another one of those days when we wonder if the EU has had any effect at all on Turkey," said Andrew Duff, a former member of the European Parliament from Britain.

There is growing concern about the authorities seeking to stifle criticism of the government, including the opening of more than 1,845 cases against citizens who allegedly “insulted” Erdogan.

Three academics are in jail - one in solitary confinement, according to her colleagues - for signing a peace petition calling for an end to conflict in the mostly Kurdish south-east. They are accused of spreading terrorist propaganda.

At least 13 journalists remain behind bars in Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists, who have condemned the trial of Dundar and Gul.

Turkey ranks 149th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Erdogan has been at the helm of the country since 2003, first as prime minister and now as president.

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