ISTANBUL (AP) — Ten journalists and three other people went on trial Tuesday accused of being involved in an alleged plot to topple Turkey's Islamic-rooted government, a case that is a key test for press freedoms in Turkey.
The trial highlights growing concerns about threats to freedom of expression in the democratic, mostly Muslim nation that seeks membership in the European Union. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islam-based government has come under increased international criticism that it is trying to silence challengers.
The government rejects the accusation, citing its record of instituting Western-backed reforms. It says it must prosecute an alleged network of hardline secularists accused of plotting a coup.
The journalists are accused of being the media wing of the alleged network and of aiding the conspiracy through alleged anti-government publications — charges they deny.
The defendants join the ranks of some 400 other people who are already on trial in an investigation — now in its fourth year — into the alleged hardline secularist group named Ergenekon. Prosecutors say it plotted in 2003 to bring down the government through attacks that would have created chaos and sparked a military coup.
Critics say the trial is based on flimsy or fabricated evidence and aims to intimidate and muzzle government opponents.
Four hours after Tuesday's opening hearing against the journalists began, trial was adjourned to wait for a ruling by a higher court on whether to replace the presiding judge. Defense lawyers say that judge cannot be impartial because of a separate case that pits him against one of the journalists.
The court said it would decide whether to release the suspects from jail when it returns on Dec. 26.
The 13 defendants included investigative journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik; writer and government critic Yalcin Kucuk and Soner Yalcin, the owner of Oda TV.
"I will defend the freedom of expression here until the end," the Anadolu news agency quoted Yalcin as telling the court.
Erdogan has said the journalists on trial are not facing charges for their writings or their thoughts but for "their alleged ties to various criminal organizations or to coup plotters."
International media rights groups traveled to Turkey to attend the trial. Authorities first allowed only a handful of journalists into the packed courtroom in Istanbul but dozens of journalists and observers later forced their way in.
"We want to express our solidarity with our detained colleagues but in the meantime express our concern for press freedom in Turkey," Philippe Leruth, vice president of the European Federation of Journalists, told AP television outside the court. "Press freedom is essential for democracy."
Journalists unfurled a banner calling for their colleagues to be released.
"Jailing journalists for their opinion is really not acceptable in democratic countries," said Pavol Mudry, an executive board member of the International Press Institute.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.