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Turkey convicts WSJ journalist of terror propaganda

A Turkish Wall Street Journal columnist has been sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for engaging in terrorist propaganda, the latest dual citizen to be caught up in the government's sweep of remotely critical journalists.

A respected correspondent for the Wall Street Journal became the latest victim of Turkey’s politicized justice system when a Turkish court sentenced her to two years and one month in prison for engaging in what it called terrorist propaganda in support of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The sentence, handed down Tuesday to dual Finnish-Turkish national Ayla Albayrak, was based on an article she wrote for the Journal describing bloody clashes between the PKK’s urban youth wing, known as the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), and the Turkish army that raged throughout the summer of 2015 in the mainly Kurdish southeast region. In quoting YDG-H members she interviewed for the piece and its accompanying video, Albayrak was deemed to have propagated terrorism, a charge she stoutly denies.

Albayrak, a tall and striking redhead who stands out at news conferences and in the field, said she plans to appeal. “Given the current climate in Turkey, this appalling decision shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did,” she said.

Albayrak, who is currently in New York, could not be reached for further comment.

The Journal, which has embraced a tough editorial line on Turkey’s accelerated descent into authoritarianism, has stood firmly behind its reporter. William Lewis, Dow Jones CEO and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, called the verdict “intolerable.” He said, “This ruling against a professional and respected journalist is an affront to all who are committed to furthering a free and robust press. We call on those who share this commitment to make their voices heard.”

US Sen. John McCain joined the clamors of protest today, saying, “Ms. Albayrak’s sentencing adds to a troubling crackdown on the free press by President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s government in Turkey, where independent media outlets have been closed and countless journalists have been jailed."

McCain’s comments came as the row between Ankara and Washington over the jailing of two Turkish nationals working for the US consulates in Istanbul and Adana continues to escalate.

Turkey remains the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. Estimates vary, but at least 150 media workers are believed to be in prison on flimsily supported terrorism charges. The bulk are accused of links to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Sunni cleric accused of masterminding last year’s attempted military takeover. Journalists seeking to expose government collusion with Syrian jihadis, most notably from the pro-secular left-wing Cumhuriyet newspaper, have been lumped in with them.

Many others, like Albayrak, have been branded propagandists for the PKK. Then there are those whose biggest crime apparently was to have openly criticized Erdogan.

Since 2015, the authorities have increasingly targeted foreign reporters as well. In August that year, VICE News reporters Jake Hanrahan, Philip Pendlebury and their Iraqi translator Mohammed Ismael Rasool were arrested for their coverage of the clashes between the army and the YDG-H. They were held in four different prisons. The two Brits were released after 11 days, but Rasool was held for four months.

Wall Street Journal correspondent Dion Nissenbaum was held incommunicado for three days in a Turkish cell last year for sharing a video of two Turkish soldiers being burned alive by the Islamic State, even though he immediately deleted the post after being warned by Turkish officials.

German-Turkish journalists Deniz Yucel and Mesale Tolu are among an expanding pool of dual nationals currently in Turkish prisons. They are seen as easy prey because under Turkish law, their foreign citizenship offers them no immunity. Turkey has ignored Germany’s calls to release the pair, sending bilateral relations into a downward spiral and prompting accusations that foreign nationals are being held as bargaining chips for Turkish nationals in Germany and elsewhere who are wanted by Turkey.

The plight of a small band of Turkish investigative reporters who sought to expose government corruption has attracted less attention. They include freelancer Tunca Ogreten, who was jailed last December together with two other journalists, Omer Celik and Mahir Kanaat, and charged seven months later with membership in a terrorist organization.

The charges stem from their exchanges via Twitter with the online collective RedHack, which claimed it had hacked Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak’s email account. The emails, published online by WikiLeaks, contain potentially incriminating information.

Based on them, Ogreten penned an article focusing on Turkey’s opaque energy transactions with Iraqi Kurdistan. Albayrak’s alleged correspondence includes exchanges with Iraqi Kurdish Oil Minister Ashti Hawrami. Albayrak is Erdogan’s son-in-law and before joining the government worked for Calik Holding, whose subsidiary was granted exclusive rights for trucking Iraqi Kurdish crude to Turkey. Opposition politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan have long claimed that rampant individual profits from the scheme benefits both sides.

Some speculate that the deal may explain why Turkey, for all its bluster about the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum on independence, has yet to enact punitive sanctions against the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Nate Schenkkan is the project director for Nations in Transit, Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic governance covering Central Europe and Eurasia. He told Al-Monitor, “I think there’s nothing more important to this government than silencing evidence about corruption.” Schenkkan added, “Between this and [the case of Iranian Turkish gold trader] Reza Zarrab, they would like to shut down any conversation about how the top levels of New Turkey are benefitting. But they can’t shut the door now. The cat’s out of the bag.”

Zarrab, who publicly flaunted his close ties to the Turkish government, is facing trial in the Southern District Court of New York for his alleged role in evading American sanctions on Iran and bribing Turkish and Iranian officials to ply his trade. Court filings made by his defense show that Zarrab donated a total of $4.6 million to Togem-Der, a Turkish charity promoting education and social values founded by Turkey’s first lady, Emine Erdogan. The “financial tables” link on the charity’s website displays an internal service error when clicked.

Turkey has been pressing for Zarrab’s extradition since he was arrested in Miami in March 2016. Al-Monitor has learned that his case was brought up by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a telephone call with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Saturday.

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