Turkey puts Reuters journalist on trial

HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Turkey's security apparatus formally targeted a foreign correspondent for the first time yesterday, putting an American reporter for Reuters news agency in the dock for breaching one of the country's many laws limiting freedom of expression.

A mixture of official politeness, the threat of a three-year jail sentence and trays of black tea in between times made the opening day of the trial a very Turkish affair. "Now, my girl," was the first question from the chief judge on the bench of the State Security Court, "how old are you?" As he and everybody else in court knew, Aliza Marcus is a 33-year-old from New Jersey living in Istanbul. What nobody understands is what Turkey hopes to gain from launching a political trial against her and by extension her London-based employers.

Ms Marcus is charged with "inciting racial hatred" in a report last November about the burning and forcible evacuation of Kurdish villages. Its content differed little from Turkish and international reports on the widespread clearances, aimed at cutting Kurdish guerrillas off from food and recruits. But the Turkish nationalist old guard struck back, choosing a different punishment from Turkey's occasional expulsions of "hostile" reporters. "She was asking for it, she wanted to be a hero,'' said one senior Turkish official. "Well, she got her trial."

Given that President Suleyman Demirel is due to visit Washington next week, and that the European Parliament may hold up a vital customs union deal until it sees better Turkish human rights, most observers had assumed that the case would be quietly dropped.

But the judges deliberately missed an obvious chance. According to Turkish press law, charges must be laid within six months. Ms Marcus wrote the article 11 months ago, but was only charged eight months later, in July. This defence argument was rejected on a dubious technicality. "Such technical matters mean nothing,'' said a senior figure in Turkey's New Democracy Party. "This is a political trial, like most trials in the state security courts."

Ms Marcus can be grateful that she is not being held in detention, as are more than 170 Turks convicted for what they have written or said. Although she pulled no punches in her reporting on the 11-year Kurdish war, Turkey's real target may be Reuters itself.

Two Turkish newspapers have taken the unusual step in recent months of criticising what they viewed as anti-Turkish bias in the agency, the world's principal source of news about Turkey. The Turks know their booming economy is a big profit centre for Reuters, whose main business is supplying financial news, not reports on Kurds.

Reuters is publicly backing Ms Marcus, who told the court that while she dictated the basic information in the story issued under her name, the final report was a joint effort by Reuters bureaux in Ankara, Istanbul and London. The judges in turn have demanded that Reuters identify, before the next court hearing on 9 November, who wrote the story.

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