Turkey protests over foreign consuls at journalists' trial

Ankara (AFP) - Turkey has protested over the presence and behaviour of consuls from EU states at the controversial espionage trial of two journalists, an official said Monday, in an escalating spat between Ankara and its Western allies.

A diplomatic source said Turkey objected to comments on social media by some of the diplomats who attended the first day of the trial of the Cumhuriyet daily's editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul.

"We have conveyed our discomfort to the concerned countries' representatives over the comments shared on social media which may constitute interference in the independent judicial process and which do not comply with impartiality," the source said.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag earlier slammed the diplomats' behaviour as "unacceptable", in an angry tirade of 14 tweets.

He warned that attempts to influence the Turkish judiciary were a "crime" and said some of the consuls were "exceeding their authority".

"Turkey is not a colony: Turkey is an independent and strong state. Turkish courts and Turkish judges are independent," he said.

The first day of the trial Friday was attended by top diplomats including the British consul general to Istanbul, who published pictures from the court on his Twitter account.

Leigh Turner, the British consul in Istanbul, posted a series of tweets on @LeighTurnerFCO and shared pictures including a selfie with a grinning Dundar under the hashtag #freedomofexpression.

Dundar and Gul are being tried over a story accusing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms bound for Syria.

The case has amplified concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey, which Reporters Without Borders ranked 149th out of 180 countries for press freedom in 2015.

Using a hugely controversial legal article, almost 2,000 people have been prosecuted for "insulting" Erdogan since the former premier became president in August 2014,

- 'Grinning ear-to-ear' -

Erdogan, who had warned Dundar he would "pay a heavy price" over the story, lashed out at Turner over his selfie with the journalist.

"The chief consul of a country stands up and goes to a trial of a journalist facing espionage charges," Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul on Monday, quoted by the state-run Anatolia news agency.

"As if it is not enough, he then takes a picture with him grinning ear-to-ear and posts it," the president said.

Faced with a wave of positive and negative comments over his posts, Turner replied: "It is for Turks to decide what kind of country they wish to live in."

That also infuriated Erdogan who accused the consul, without directly naming, him of using "expressions that overstep their boundaries."

The president said: "If this person is still able to work in our country, it is thanks to our hospitality."

"Elsewhere, such diplomats who display such behaviour would not be hosted for a single day."

British Minister for Europe David Lidington had backed Turner's attendance at the trial, describing it as an "important case for freedom of media in Turkey."

Cumhuriyet's report on a shipment of arms being intercepted at the Syrian border in January 2014 sparked outrage when it was published in May, fuelling speculation about Turkey's dealings with various groups in Syria.

The court on Friday accepted the president and Turkey's intelligence agency as civil plaintiffs in the case.

But the judge ordered the trial to be held behind closed doors, granting a request by the prosecution which cited "national security" concerns.

The decision caused an immediate outcry and was protested by opposition politicians who refused to leave the courtroom, prompting the judge to adjourn the trial until April 1.