ISTANBUL: Their imprisonment has torn families apart while the newspaper they work for is left without some of its brightest stars.
But the relatives and colleagues of jailed journalists from the Turkish opposition daily Cumhuriyet vow to continue to fight for their freedom and ideals.
“For nine months we have been living a nightmare, to be honest,” said Nazire Gursel, wife of veteran commentator Kadri Gursel who has been in jail since October.
The hardest part, she said, was replying to questions from their 10-year-old son, Erdem.
“People tell my child, ‘Your father is a hero, he has done a lot for Turkey’,” Nazire Gursel recounted.
“So, on the one hand he is proud, but on the other hand, he asks, ‘But why is my father in prison if he is a hero? Who is his enemy?’”
Monday, 17 journalists, executives and other staff of Cumhuriyet, a daily fiercely critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been on trial accused of supporting “terrorist” organizations.
Secular Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) daily, one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers, has built a strong reputation for publishing scoops embarrassing for those in power.
The newspaper rejects the “absurd” accusations and claims the trial is aimed at damaging one of the country’s last independent media outlets.
The experience has united journalists’ relatives and their free colleagues who come to court together, and who sometimes go in groups to Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul with a minibus chartered by the newspaper.
Nazire Gursel goes to Silivri every Friday. “I had never been to Silivri before my husband’s incarceration. When I arrived there for the first time, I told myself ‘it looks like a Nazi camp’,” she told AFP.
“It is a really scary place.”
The trial gave family members the chance to see their loved ones outside of prison, where visits are confined to an hour and take place behind bulletproof glass.
“We at least have the chance to see or hear them without a window between us, to hear their voice directly without using a telephone,” said Yonca Sik, the wife of Ahmet Sik, one of Turkey’s most famous investigative journalists who is also jailed.
According to her, conditions in prison have hardened since her husband’s last incarceration: in 2011, he was imprisoned after writing notably one of the few full-scale investigations into the group of Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen is a US-based cleric who Ankara accuses of ordering last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“They are in isolation, that is especially the hardest,” she told AFP in front of the Istanbul courthouse where the staff is on trial. Among them, 11 are in pre-trial detention.
“They take them away from the people they love, their work and it’s clearly an injustice, persecution,” one of Cumhuriyet’s lawyers Efkan Bolac said.
“It’s torture for the accused.”
Beyond the impact on families, the incarcerations have hurt Cumhuriyet: the paper’s chairman, Akin Atalay, and its editor in chief Murat Sabuncu are currently in prison.
“For nine months, Cumhuriyet has faced troubles. Nearly all of its senior executives have been imprisoned as well as many writers,” the daily’s Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul said.
Gul himself was sentenced last year to five years in prison for “revealing state secrets” after a front-page story claiming to show the government sending arms to rebels in Syria in May 2015. He is appealing the sentence.
“We are paying a heavy price but we continue to publish the newspaper,” Gul said, adding: “Cumhuriyet has not changed its editorial line.”
Nazire Gursel says she does not regret the work that her husband did which caused him to be behind bars. “I’m immensely proud of him.”
The judge is likely to decide on Friday whether or not to release the accused for the rest of the trial.
Turkey is no longer a state of law, but there are still people who are fighting for democracy, for justice,” said Yonca Sik, pointing to the demonstrators gathered in front of the court.
“And that, of course, gives me hope.”