Turkish court drops charges against reporter amid outcry

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An American Jewish journalist based in Istanbul expressed relief after she was acquitted on charges of provoking racial hatred within Turkey's Kurdish minority.

A Turkish court Thursday of last week cited insufficient evidence and lack of intent in clearing Aliza Marcus, a Reuters reporter and former staff writer for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York.

"I'm really relieved and happy that the court acquitted," Marcus said in a telephone interview from the Reuters bureau in Istanbul. "Our position from the beginning was that there was nothing wrong with the article and that we had broken no law."

Jewish groups and human rights activists who spoke out in recent weeks on behalf of Marcus welcomed the court decision.

Marcus, 33, faced a three-year prison sentence if convicted of racial incitement for her article, "The Army's Target: Kurdish Villages," which referred to forcible evacuations of Kurdish villages as part of the government's campaign against insurgent Kurdish fighters in southeastern Turkey.

The article, transmitted by Reuters around the world, appeared last year in a pro-Kurdish daily, Ozgur Ulke.

A panel of three judges unanimously ruled in a matter of minutes to acquit Marcus. The court prosecutor had recommended acquittal, saying that the story bearing Marcus' byline was not hers alone but part of a collaborative effort with Reuters editors in London.

"We are delighted with the outcome, which is a complete vindication of Aliza Marcus personally and endorses Reuters' reputation for editorial independence and accuracy," Reuters Editor in Chief Mark Wood said in a Reuters dispatch.

Marcus was the first foreign journalist prosecuted in Turkey. At least 50 local journalists remain jailed in that country for their writings.

Marcus praised Jewish groups, members of Congress, human rights and media rights activists who came to her defense in the last month, urging the Turkish government to drop the charges.

Marcus said she was "very encouraged" by the outpouring of support she received.

Walter Cronkite, honorary chairman of the N.Y.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, met in Ankara with Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller last month to protest the government's actions against Marcus and other reporters.

As part of its current aid package to Turkey, Congress put the country on notice that it would watch Marcus' case carefully. In addition, 35 members signed on to a letter to Turkish President Suleyman Demirel calling for her release.

The World Jewish Congress filed a complaint with the European Union in Brussels, citing Marcus' case and consistent violations of press freedoms in Turkey.

The European Parliament, which is considering Turkey's application for membership, has threatened to veto its bid for a customs union if the Turkish government does not improve its human rights record.

Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director, said he had "no doubt" that Ankara felt the mounting weight of diplomatic pressures as it dealt with Marcus' case.

"We are of course gratified," Steinberg said of Marcus' acquittal. "There are only winners from this outcome — the press, the Jewish community and the Turkish government."

The Committee to Protect Journalists hailed Marcus' acquittal while also calling on Turkey to free other journalists jailed and awaiting trial on similar charges.

"We hope that this decision will go beyond Aliza and serve as a precedent for literally hundreds of cases that have been brought against Turkish journalists over the last few years," said Avner Gidron, research director for the committee.

The verdict comes a week after the Turkish government loosened some of its restrictions on freedom of expression and began releasing Turks imprisoned for writings and speeches on the Kurdish problem.

Human rights activists said, however, that the changes in Turkey's codes are not significant and were undertaken to appease the European Parliament as it prepares to debate Turkey's membership application.

At work again in Istanbul, Marcus said she has every intention of continuing on in her assignment for Reuters.

"I'm happy I can finally focus back on my work," she said. "It took a lot of my time and there was a lot of anxiety."