Turkey's Erdoğan demands life sentence for newspaper editor over Syria arms story

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has filed a criminal complaint calling for a life sentence against a prominent newspaper editor, who he had previously said would pay the "highest price" after publishing evidence of Turkish intelligence facilitating the transfer of weapons to Syria.

Last month, Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, published a video online which purported to show arms being transferred in trucks operated by Turkey's National Intelligence Organisation (MIT). The footage shows police officers opening the contents of the trucks to reveal weapons and ammunition heading into Syria in January 2014.

The complaint against Dündar was filed on 2 June by Erdoğan's lawyer to the Ankara chief prosecutor's office and claims that the footage is fabricated and that he "joined the actions" of the supporters of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric and a rival of Erdoğan who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999 because he faced charges of organising a plot to overthrow the Turkish government.

It seeks a maximum penalty of an aggravated life sentence, one life sentence and an additional 42 years in prison for the crimes that Dündar is alleged to have committed. In Turkey, an aggravated life sentence sees the prisoner held in a room for one with only one hour of open air permitted per day.

According to the Hurriyet Daily News, the complaint reads: "By publishing the fabricated footage and information that were leaked to him by the parallel organisation, [Dündar] joined the actions of the organisation members who searched the trucks and plotted with fabricated evidence to create a perception in the scope of a planned setup as if the Republic of Turkey has been helping terrorist organisations."

The statement adds that Dündar's publication of the Syrian arms transfer was not an act of journalism as he "targets the national interests of the state and the nation by acting together with the parallel organisation". Erdogan and his party refer to Gülen and his supporters as "parallel" to or against the government.

In January, Turkish authorities carried out raids across the country against dozens of suspected Gülen supporters, after Erdoğan's inner circle was implicated in a corruption scandal based on intercepted private conversations.

Bulent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman, the English language edition of Turkey's biggest selling daily, who has faced a number of lawsuits from Erdoğan, warns that Turkey is in danger of becoming like North Korea or Uzbekistan if Erdogan's ruling conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) win in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

"If Erdoğan and his close circle get what they want from the elections, I think Can Dündar will have no chance to continue in journalism unfortunately," he says. The AKP, led by current prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are aiming to achieve a two-thirds majority which would enable them to make changes to the constitution without calling a referendum.

"Turkey has no death penalty but if Turkey still had that death penalty in its law, I think the president's lawyers [would] demand this for Can Dündar," he adds.

On Sunday, the Turkish people head to the polls for the country's parliamentary elections. Erdogan's ruling conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) are favourites to win, led by current prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Kenes believes that a victory for the AKP would signal a deterioration in press freedom in the country.

In January, Erdoğan claimed that Turkey has the freest media in the world despite a number of arrests of journalists opposed to his rule. Last December, the editor of the country's Zaman, Turkey's highest circulation newspaper, was arrested in raids along with 26 others.

In reaction to the threat against Dündar from the Turkish leader, the International Press Institute condemned Erdoğan for his "disturbing lack of respect for the principles of media freedom and democracy" while the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the president to "stop bullying journalists and news outlets ... just because he doesn't like what they report".