International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Board Chair Markus Spillmann today paid a solidarity visit to former journalists and executives with the secular daily Cumhuriyet whose arbitrary convictions and jail sentences were upheld by an appeals court in Turkey last month.

Spillmann and IPI Turkey Advocacy Coordinator Caroline Stockford met today in Istanbul with several defendants in the case, including IPI Executive Board member Kadri Gürsel and three other Cumhuriyet staff members: Önder Çelik and Mustafa Kemal Güngör and the newspaper’s accountant, Emre İper. They are among the 14 journalists and executives sentenced last April to prison on terror charges despite a lack of evidence.

“We believed then and believe now that these rulings are a punishment for critical journalism and an attack against free media”, Spillmann said. “We urge the relevant authorities to refrain from further measures. We regard not only Kadri Gürsel’s conviction but also those of many other journalists in Turkey as unjustified.”

He added: “We as the Executive Board of the International Press Institute express our utmost support for Kadri Gürsel, our fellow Board member and chair of the Turkish National Committee and a colleague of tremendous professionalism and integrity.”

The 23 other members of IPI’s Executive Board – leading editors and media executives from 20 countries on five continents – today also published a letter of solidarity and support for Gürsel.

The appeals court decision to uphold the sentences last month means that defendants sentenced to fewer than five years – including Çelik, Güngör, and İper – risk being sent back to prison. Those with sentences greater than five years have the possibility to appeal to Turkey’s Supreme Court. According to Turkish law, prisoners with less than one year to serve on their sentence, as in Gürsel’s case, have the right to serve out the remainder on parole.

The defendants in the case were initially detained in 2016. Following the failed coup attempt that year the Turkish government launched a crackdown on critical media outlets across the political and ideological spectrum. The wave of mass arrests and trials against journalists has been used a tool to create an environment of fear against those critical of the Turkish government. Gürsel was arrested on November 5, 2016, as part of a police operation against Cumhuriyet and released on September 26, 2017, after ten months in pretrial detention.

Fourteen of the original 17 defendants were convicted of lending support to multiple terror organizations of vastly different stripes, including the Kurdish PKK, the extreme-left DHKP-C, and FETÖ, a government designation for the movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey blames for the coup attempt.

The convictions in April were based on groundless accusations for which prosecutors produced no credible evidence. “The trial was permitted to progress in a landscape devoid of any guarantee of the right to an impartial, speedy and fair trial as enshrined in the Turkish constitution, European case law and the European Convention on Human Rights”, Stockford wrote last year after leading an IPI delegation to observe the proceedings.