(CN) – In a turbulent morning for the Turkish press, one court in Istanbul condemned six journalists to life in prison Friday while another ordered the release of a reporter who has spent the past year jailed without a charge.
All seven reporters have been accused of links to Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher whom Turkey has accused of masterminding a failed 2016 coup attempt on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Outstripping China and Egypt for the honor, Turkey leads the world in jailing journalists. Together the three countries lock up 51 percent of the planet’s incarcerated reporters.
The latest addition to this statistic drew swift condemnation Friday from London-based PEN International and nine other press-freedom groups.
“These verdicts, the first against journalists accused of being connected to the July 2016 failed coup, set a devastating precedent for the many other journalists and writers in Turkey who are being tried on similarly spurious charges,” PEN’s president Jennifer Clement said in a statement.
Other groups that co-signed the statement include Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute, and the European Center for Press and Media Freedom.
Mehmet Altan, a well-known author who was sentenced Friday along with his brother Ahmet and prominent journalist Nazli Ilicak, drew international headlines Tuesday for his fiery statement in his own defense.
“Oppressing intellectuals and presenting these people as terrorists and putschists in order to destroy freedom of expression and freedom of thought are shameful endeavors that will benefit no one,” Altan told the court.
“If the rule of law were upheld, I would not have gone through any of what I am going through,” Altan continued. “I am here because the rule of law has been destroyed.”
One Turkish newspaper reported that the journalists had tried “to abolish the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey by resorting to the use of force and violence.”
For his part, the cleric Gulen has denied any role in the 2016 coup.
Roughly an hour before the reporters were sentenced, another court in Istanbul ordered the bail release of Deniz Yucel from the high-security prison where the German-Turkish reporter has been held for a year without charge.
After the Die Welt journalist was freed later that day, attorney Veysel Ok shared a photo of Yucel embracing his wife, Dilek, outside the prison.
Die Welt reported that the bouquet of parsley pictured with the couple in the joyful embrace was a symbol of their love inside prison, where the two were married.
Though now free, Yucel has been indicted with terrorism-related offenses that carry a potential 18-year sentence.
German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the Yucels have since boarded a government airplane home to Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey a day earlier, amid reports that the Turkish government wanted to use Yucel as a bargaining chip to purchase arms.
Yucel told a German newspaper that he wanted no role in any “dirty deal.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meanwhile met in Ankara on Friday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Starting with the question of American support for Kurdish rebels in northern Syria, Tillerson and Cavusoglu announced the creation of new “mechanisms” to improve diplomatic relations that have strained significantly over the years.
Though America considers the Kurdish militia known as the YPG as a top ally in the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey considers the the group, whose name stands for People’s Protection Units in Turkish, a terrorist organization.
A State Department official called the sentencing announcement Friday deeply troubling.
“These extraordinary sentences appear to be another example of the Turkish authorities criminalizing journalism under the state of emergency in order to discourage the free expression of viewpoints critical of the government,” the official said. “We firmly believe that a free press and the freedom of speech – even speech which some find controversial or uncomfortable – strengthen democracy and should be protected. We urge Turkey to end its protracted state of emergency, to release all those imprisoned arbitrarily, including these six journalists, to abide by its commitments to freedom of the press, due process and judicial independence, and to respect the fundamental freedoms of its people.”
The State Department did address whether the matter came up at Tillerson’s meetings in Ankara.
Tillerson did, however, touch on press rights in a statement.
“Respect for the rule of law, judicial independence, and an open press are a source of strength and stability,” Tillerson said. “When Turkey maintains its commitment to these principals, it expands our potential partnership.”