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Is model Turkey sliding into authoritarianism?

The trial of prize-winning Turkish journalist Nedim Sener resumed today. His case, along with many others, are raising concerns about Turkey and its model democracy in the Middle East. 

By Alexander Christie-MillerCorrespondent / December 26, 2011

Journalists and their supporters gather outside the Justice Palace to protest against the detention of journalists in Istanbul, Monday. A Turkish court held the second hearing in the case of journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, who are accused of being linked to a group accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

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Istanbul, TURKEY

A constitutional law professor, a prize-winning investigative journalist, a noted free-speech activist.

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All of them are among the mounting number of Turkish lawyers, politicians, journalists, and academics put behind bars in recent months on dubious terror charges that are stoking fears that Turkey's courts and police are being used to crush political dissent.

Critics say that such cases are evidence that Turkey is sliding toward authoritarianism, even as it is lauded by Western governments as a role model for the Middle East – particularly in the wake of this year's Arab uprisings.

"Everyone is so dazzled by Turkey's regional role at the moment that there is almost total silence over this great situation of injustice unfolding at home," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Since 9/11, Turkey has convicted nearly 13,000 people of terrorism offenses, more than any of 66 countries – including China – examined in an Associated Press investigation published in September.

One case that has fueled fears of authoritarianism is that of two investigative reporters who were indicted as part of an antiterror probe targeting alleged ultrasecularist coup plotters.

Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, whose trial began last month and resumed today, are accused of conspiring with a gang aiming to overthrow Turkey's Islamic-rooted government – a gang whose criminal activity they had exposed in the past. More recently, Mr. Sener, who was named a World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute last year, and Mr. Sik had begun investigating the activities of a powerful Islamic network with links to the government. Among evidence seized during Sik's arrest was a book he was writing, in which he claimed Turkey's police had been infiltrated by Islamists.

Prosecutors ordered every copy of the manuscript, which they described as an "illegal organizational document," to be seized.

"If people are satisfied with this democracy, then I wish them luck and happiness," says Sik's wife, Yonca, "but it is not my definition of democracy."

The majority of those being detained are Kurds or pro-Kurdish activists. Turkey's Kurdish minority of 15 million has long faced persecution, and since 1984 Turkey has been fighting an insurgency led by the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

In the first nine months of 2011, more than 4,500 people were arrested and 1,800 held in custody as part of a probe supposedly targeting the PKK's urban wing, according to the Turkish Peace Council.

In October, Ragip Zarakolu, a prominent publisher and free-speech activist, and Busra Ersanli, a constitutional law professor, were among those arrested. Taken at the same time was Kurdish-language teacher Kemal Seven.

His adult daughter, Delal Seven-Gibbs, says she believes her father was detained solely for his connection to a teaching academy run by a Kurdish nationalist party. "We're proud knowing that he's innocent," she says. "But on the other hand, if he's innocent but still in jail, what's going to happen? He could be there for another five years."

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