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FILE PHOTO - Supporters of the Gulen movement react after Zaman editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanli was released by a court, outside the Justice Palace in Istanbul December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Murad Sezer(reuters_tickers)
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Thirty journalists and newspaper executives from a Turkish newspaper which was shut down last year went on trial on Monday, facing life sentences over charges that they had links to a failed coup attempt.
The former employees of the Zaman newspaper are charged with "membership of an armed terror organisation" and "attempting to overthrow" the government, parliament and the constitutional order through their links to cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Zaman was affiliated with Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric and former ally of President Tayyip Erdogan. Gulen is blamed by Ankara for instigating the failed July 2016 coup, but denies any involvement.
Zaman was first seized by the Turkish government in March 2016, months before the coup attempt, and then closed down by a government decree.
Twenty-two of the suspects have been in pre-trial detention for months, including 73-year-old columnist Sahin Alpay.
"If it had ever crossed my mind that the Gulenist movement would take a role in a coup attempt, I would never have written a column in the Zaman newspaper," Dogan news agency quoted Alpay as saying.
The indictment calls for three consecutive life sentences for the Zaman staff on charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, the Turkish parliament and the Turkish government, and says the newspaper had exceeded the limits of press freedom and freedom of expression.
"I accept that this is an armed terrorist organisation, but I was never a member of it," columnist Ali Bulac told the court in Silivri, the site of a large prison about 60 km (40 miles) west of the city. He had not paid close attention to the Gulenist movement's activities, he said.
"I missed the hole in the ground when I was watching the stars. But who did see it?," Bulac said, adding the group's operations were perceived to be legal during the time he worked for Zaman.
Turkey's Justice Ministry announced in July that more than 50,000 people had been arrested and 169,013 have been the subject of legal proceedings since the coup attempt.
The scale of the crackdown has drawn criticism from Turkey's Western allies and led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to call for Ankara's European Union accession talks to be called off. Turkey says the sweeping response to the coup reflects the deep security challenges the country has faced.
Rights groups say more than 160 journalists are detained in Turkey, making it the world's biggest jailer of journalists. The hearing will continue this week.
(Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans and Janet Lawrence)