ISTANBUL Turkey's top court ruled on Thursday that detaining two journalists from an opposition newspaper had violated their rights and an advocacy group called for the charges against them, which carry a life sentence, to be dropped.
The arrest of Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul last November drew international condemnation and revived concern about media freedom in Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan.
They were detained after the publication of video footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency helping send weapons to Syria.
"The constitutional court has ruled that there is a rights violation. An immediate appeal will be made ... We are expecting their release," Tahir Ozyurt, Cumhuriyet's acting editor-in-chief, told Reuters. An appeal to a local court is needed to secure the speedy release of the journalists.
Cumhuriyet's managing director Akin Atalay told Reuters that under normal circumstances the two would have been freed later on Thursday after the constitutional court ruled rights had been violated, but their release might be delayed to Friday because the court that would order their release was already in session.
The two were charged with intentionally aiding an armed terrorist organisation and publishing material in violation of state security. Cumhuriyet published photos, videos and a report last May that it said showed intelligence officials transporting arms to Syria in trucks in 2014.
Erdogan, who has cast the newspaper's coverage as part of an attempt to undermine Turkey's global standing, said he would not forgive such reporting.
He has acknowledged that the trucks, which were stopped by gendarmerie and police officers en route to the Syrian border, belonged to the MIT intelligence agency and said they were carrying aid to Turkmens in Syria. Turkmen fighters are battling both President Bashar al-Assad's forces and Islamic State.
In the ruling, the court said the arrest of the journalists was "not lawful" and violated their individual freedom and safety, adding "the ruling should be sent to the relevant court to overturn this breach".
Despite the ruling, the two reporters are still facing possible life sentences at a trial which is due to start on March 25. Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders welcomed the court's decision, but called for the charges of espionage and assisting a terrorist organisation to be dropped.
In an interview on CNN Turk, Dundar's wife Dilek Dundar spoke of hope for Turkey's press freedom, as she waited for the release of her husband.
"Hope these dark clouds over Turkey's press will be lifted. The ruling of the Constitutional Court is very promising."
(Additional reporting by Melih Aslan; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by David Dolan and Dominic Evans)
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