Turkey dashes hopes of top novelist's release

Istanbul (AFP) - An Istanbul court on Wednesday ordered prominent Turkish novelist Asli Erdogan and linguist Necmiye Alpay to remain in jail on controversial terror charges, disappointing supporters after earlier reports they were to be released.

Erdogan and Alpay have been held 97 and 85 days respectively in a women's prison in Istanbul over their involvement in a pro-Kurdish newspaper, in a case that has caused international alarm.

The court ordered the release of the pair on charges of seeking to disrupt state unity, Asli Erdogan's lawyer Erdal Dogan told AFP outside Bakirkoy women's prison on the outskirts of Istanbul.

But it also ordered they remain in pre-trial detention on separate charges of membership of a banned terror organisation and thus "their arrest continues", he added.

Calling the verdict "saddening", he said Erdogan was not yet informed of the confusion over the ruling.

"We will inform her when we visit her tomorrow or the next day."

They were taken into custody in August as part of a probe into the now shut-down pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem on charges of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The Turkish authorities accuse Ozgur Gundem of acting as a mouthpiece for the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

The initial release order prompted reports on Turkish media that they were being set free but state news agency Anadolu also confirmed they were to stay in jail.

- 'Turkey must release them' -

Including Erdogan, 49, and Alpay, who turned 70 on Wednesday, a total of nine suspects linked to Ozgur Gundem have been charged in the case.

Their detention has been criticised by fellow writers and human rights activists including the UN rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye.

He met with Alpay during his visit to Turkey last week but was denied access to Erdogan.

"Disappointed that Asli Erdogan and Necmiye Alpay not released from prison. Turkey should release them and many others," Kaye wrote on Twitter.

Erdogan is due to go on trial next month and Turkish prosecutors had demanded life sentences for all nine suspects.

Four of the nine charged in the Ozgur Gundem case are held in jail. Along with Erdogan and Alpay, the other two are Ozgur Gundem's editor-in-chief Zana Bilir Kaya and its writer Inan Kizilkaya.

Erdogan is no relation to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- the name is common in Turkey.

She has published several well-received novels including "The City in Crimson Cloak", which was also translated into English.

She has been charged over three articles written this summer over the situation in Turkey's southeast where the armed forces are battling the PKK.

"To press charges... over three articles she penned can be only possible in an order where there is no law," Erdal said.

- 'Very upset' -

Supporters have said Erdogan suffers from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes. Erdal said her physical health is not very good "but tries to remain solid psychologically".

"Her biggest shock is the accusations against her and her state of arrest, which strains her psychologically."

Outside Bakirkoy jail, supporter Ramazan, 34, said he rushed to the prison to embrace Asli Erdogan after hearing the initial reports.

"I happily rushed here to see her but now I am very upset."

As well as a renowned linguist, Alpay is a prominent translator praised for making international literature available to Turkish readers.

Turkey is in the throes of a state of emergency imposed in the wake of the failed July 15 coup with almost 37,000 people placed under arrest.

Ten MPs from the country's main pro-Kurdish party were arrested earlier this month, as well as nine staff from the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper.

Critics say its scope goes far beyond measures against the suspected coup plotters and is targeting any critic of President Erdogan.

According to the Platform for Independent Journalism website, there are now 145 journalists behind bars in Turkey, which is ranked 151st of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.