Kadri Gursel - Reuters
ISTANBUL - 25 September 2017: The controversial trial of 17 journalists and staff from the Turkish opposition daily Cumhuriyet began hearing witness testimony on Monday, with a key witness dismissing charges that the accused are linked to terror groups.
Five top figures from the newspaper, which has been deeply critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remain in custody, though the remainder are now free while on trial.
In a case that has caused an international outcry, the staff members are charged with supporting in their coverage three groups that Turkey considers terror groups.
These are the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the ultra-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), and the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher whom Ankara accuses of ordering last year's coup attempt.
The Turkish government calls the movement the Fethullah Terror Group (FETO).
Supporters of the paper say it has always taken a tough line against the three organisations and is being punished for being one of the few opposition voices in the Turkish media.
"I worked with them. I know their past. These colleagues cannot be terrorists, those friends cannot be FETO," defence witness Alev Coskun, a board member of the Cumhuriyet foundation and influential writer, told the court.
He also pointed to tensions at the newspaper under the editorship of Can Dundar, who in 2015 broke an explosive story claiming Turkey was sending arms to Syria, and who now lives in exile in Germany.
"This is a serious newspaper. It is not a newspaper where Can Dundar played games," Coskun said.
The staff members still in custody include some of the biggest names in Turkish journalism, and the court has so far resisted pressure to free them.
The paper's chairman Akin Atalay, influential columnist Kadri Gursel and editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu have been held behind bars for 330 days.
Investigative reporter Ahmet Sik, who wrote a book exposing the past ties of members of the Turkish elite to the Gulen movement, has been held for 269 days, and accountant Emre Iper for 173 days.
Earlier, a group of around 200 people gathered outside the Istanbul courthouse, carrying portraits of the journalists and banners with slogans "freedom for journalists" and "independent press cannot be silenced".
According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 171 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested under the state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
The country ranks 155 out of 180 on the latest world press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders.