Prominent Turkish journalists on trial for links to an underground anti-government network called the conspiracy charges against them "political" in a case that has raised concerns over media freedom in Turkey.

Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, investigative journalists arrested in March and held since in a top-security prison outside Istanbul, were among 14 defendants in court to open
their defense on Thursday.

Turkey is currently holding nearly 100 members of the news media in jail, one of the highest numbers worldwide, in a crackdown that critics and rights groups say blights Muslim Turkey's image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.

Looking thinner, but defiant, Sener, an award-winning journalist who has written books about Turkey's clandestine "deep state" activities, greeted observers as he entered a
packed courtroom, saying: "Welcome to the theatre" and took a bow.

Sik, who has written books about the infiltration of the police by an Islamist movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim theologian based in the United States and considered close to parts of the ruling AKP, derided the case against them.

"Our arrests were political," Sik told Reuters during a break.

Like Sener, he is accused of belonging to the 'Ergenekon', an ultra-nationalist group accused by prosecutors of being behind multiple conspiracies against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government.

If found guilty the two face a maximum of 15 years in prison. Both have denied the charges and say the evidence against them was planted.

Investigations into Ergenekon have spiraled since they first opened in 2007, and critics accuse the government of scaremongering to silence opponents. The government denies any such motives.

Several hundred suspects, including retired senior military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists have been detained in cases related to Ergenekon.

The other defendants in court on Thursday included Yalcin Kucuk, an author and television debate show presenter, and Soner Yalcin, editor of Oda TV, and several colleagues from the television website known for its criticism of the government.

Also in the dock was a former police chief, Hanefi Avci, who has written about the infiltration of the police by Gulenists.

The European Union and the United States have raised their concerns over the arrests of journalists in Turkey. But with the economy growing rapidly and Turks tasting unprecedented prosperity and political stability, public outcry has been so far relatively muted.

Turkey, an EU candidate that is seen by some as a model of Muslim democracy in a region undergoing deep changes due to "Arab Spring" popular uprisings.

The AKP is a socially conservative, economically liberal party led by pious Muslims. Secularists suspect the AKP harbors a religious agenda that Erdogan denies.

Critics says the crackdown on journalists is a reflection of Erdogan's intolerance and accused the ruling AKP, in power since 2002 and with a huge majority in parliament, of trying to silence critical media.

Government officials says the journalists are on trial for criminal activities, not because of what they wrote.

Journalists to Remain Under Arrest

An Istanbul court ruled for continued arrests of two famous reporters on trial for alleged links to the Ergenekon group. The pair said that press freedom and journalism itself – instead of journalists – was on trial.

The next hearing will take place Jan. 23, journalists tweeted to the micro-blogging Web site, Twitter, from the courthouse.

"My responses to the accusations doesn't construe acceptance. We are living in times in which we shall not speak of silence. This is a case against press freedom," said Ahmet Şık, one of the journalists on trial. "The situation is obvious. I do not request a discharge. I request nothing. I am journalist and I have always been after the truth. I never got any orders from anyone."

The eighth hearing of the Oda TV case, in which 14 suspects, including arrested journalists Ahmet Şık, Nedim Þener and Soner Yalçın, are being tried, continued Thursday.

The case has raised numerous concerns over media freedom in Turkey, which is currently holding more than 100 members of the news media in jail, one of the highest numbers worldwide.

"I didn't bring my book, God forbid it might explode," Şık said in court, referring to his book, which was declared "illegal" and confiscated by police before it was published.

Nedim Şener and Şık, investigative journalists were arrested in March and have been held since in a top-security prison outside Istanbul, were among the 14 defendants in court to open their defense. The defendants are accused of having ties to the Ergenekon gang, which allegedly tried to overthrow the government by first fomenting chaos in society.

Many journalists, academics and intellectuals attended the trial in order to give support to the arrested journalists. Şık has written books about how the Fethullah Gülen movement, which is centered on a Turkish theologian based in Pennsylvania and is considered to be close to the ruling party, has infiltrated the police.

Deriding the case, he said: "With this indictment, you could accuse all journalists of being a member of Ergenekon. It's ridiculous. There is an organization as you claim. But its name is contra-guerilla, that is, the deep state, not Ergenekon."

Şık said he had never met Yalçın, the journalist and owner of the Oda TV, a Web site known for its criticism of the government.

"I have never met Soner Yalçın, whom I am allegedly taking orders from. Ideologically, we are on opposite sides," Şık added. "Eleven people are in their 11th month in jail. We don't even know what we are accused of. There's no crime in prosecutor's indictment."

Şener, an award-winning journalist who has written books about Turkey's clandestine deep-state activities, greeted observers as he entered a packed courtroom, saying: "Welcome to the theater" and taking a bow.

"I was tried in almost 100 different cases because of what I have written in previous years. But for the first time in my life, I have been arrested and tried for a book I haven't written," he said.

Şener said there was a structure inside the police and the national intelligence services that had tried to cover up the truth of the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Several hundred suspects, including retired senior military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists have been detained in cases related to Ergenekon.

Iran to Hold New War Games in Key Oil Waterway

Iran is to hold fresh military exercises in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz within weeks, the naval commander of its powerful Revolutionary Guards was quoted as saying on Friday.

The maneuvers are to be held in the Iranian calendar month that runs from January 21 to February 19, the Fars news agency quoted guard Ali Fadavi saying. They will underline Iran's assertion that it has "full control over the Strait of Hormuz area and controls all movements in it," Fadavi said.

The announcement, which narrowed down a timeframe for exercises the Guards had previously only given as "soon," risking aggravating tensions with the West over the strait. The waterway is the world's "most important chokepoint" for oil tankers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administrations. Some 20 percent of the world's oil flows through the narrow channel at the entrance to the Gulf.

Iran's regular navy completed 10 days of war games to the east of the strait, in the Gulf of Oman, early this week, with tests of three anti-ship missiles.

Iran's military and political leaders have warned they could close the strait if increased Western sanctions halt Iranian oil exports. The navy has also warned it will react if the United States tries to redeploy one of its aircraft carriers to the waterway.

The Revolutionary Guards, who use high-speed skiffs mounted with missile launchers and other lightweight vessels, periodically hold maneuvers in and around the Strait of Hormuz. The last ones took place in July 2011 and included the firing of several anti-ship missiles, including two Khalij Fars missiles with a range of 300 kilometres (190 miles).

Fadavi did not give details of the new maneuvers.

"The 7th in the series of Great Prophet Maneuvers will be conducted in the area of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. They will have significant differences from the previous ones," he said.

Iran Wants to See Turkey Host Nuclear Negotiations

Iran's foreign minister said Thursday he would like to see talks with world powers on his country's nuclear program resume in Turkey, but was waiting for a venue and date to be agreed upon.

"Personally, I think that Turkey is the best place for the talks to take place. But it should be at a place of mutual agreement," Ali Akbar Salehi said in a televised joint news conference with his counterpart Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Agence France-Presse reported.

Salehi said he had asked European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, who was representing the world powers, to propose a time and place for the talks when the two met briefly recently in the German city of Bonn. Ashton's office, however, has said it was still waiting for Iran to formally respond to an October 2011 letter Ashton sent offering to resume the talks, which were suspended a year ago.

Salehi brushed aside that demand, saying Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, "has said in the past couple of months that Iran is ready to resume talks." He said Ashton asked Davutoğlu if Turkey could host the next meeting between Iran and the so-called "5+1 Group" comprising UN permanent Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus non-permanent member Germany; Davutoğlu reportedly agreed.

Iran's position, Salehi said, "is a state of readiness to resume talks."

Davutoğlu told the news conference he had conveyed Ashton's request for a formal response from Iran.

"We want to see both sides go back to the negotiating table," he said. Davutoğlu also met with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi earlier Thursday. He is also expected to be received by Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Anatolia news agency reported.

Davutoğlu and Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, discussed Turkey-Iran relations and regional issues as well as Iran's nuclear energy activities in a meeting.

Meanwhile, Iran was "not concerned" about EU moves to ban Iranian oil imports and will survive them as it has other Western measures, Salehi said.

"Iran has always been ready to counter such hostile actions, and we are not concerned at all about the sanctions," al-Salehi said. "We have taken provisional measures. We have weathered the storm for the past 32 years, and we will be able to survive this as well."

Diplomats in Brussels said Wednesday that the 27-nation EU bloc has reached an "agreement in principle" to ban Iranian oil imports and were discussing the timing of when the measure would begin. The ban would add to other sanctions already imposed by the West, including a U.S. measure enacted last weekend that targets Iran's central bank, which processes most of the Islamic republic's oil sales.

The U.S. hailed the EU move toward banning Iranian oil and said it wanted other countries around the world to follow suit.

"We do believe that this is consistent with tightening the noose on Iran economically," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Urges Iran to Help Stop Sectarian Divide in Middle East

In the belief that the volatile Middle East might be headed for a new Cold War era unless a sectarian rift in Iraq is immediately mended, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has urged Iranian officials to cooperate with Turkey in its efforts to stop the Sunni and Shiite sects from clashing in politically fragile Iraq.

During his flight to Iran on Wednesday, Davutoğlu once more raised the possibility that "certain actors" in the region have sought to recreate the circumstances of the Cold War era, and reinstated Turkey's call for "overarching policies" for the region.

Recalling Iran's influential role in the Middle East, Davutoğlu emphasized Thursday that Iraq and Syria are in "urgent need for solidarity."

"Turkey and Iran can contribute to a solution in Iraq and Syria." He signaled that, as the country's immediate neighbors, much responsibility falls on the shoulders of both Iran and Turkey. "The regional awakening in the Middle East will make us and our relations stronger. We are now laying the foundations of an era that could last a century," Davutoğlu drew attention to the power of recent developments to determine the future of the region. He stressed that the "attitudes taken today" will be very crucial.

"States should not base their policies on sectarian and ethnic tensions," Davutoğlu told reporters aboard his plane to Tehran, where he held multiple meetings with senior Iranian officials, starting with his counterpart Ali Akbar Salihi, to discuss the current developments in Iran.

In a joint press conference on Thursday, Davutoğlu reaffirmed Turkey's faith that Iran will cooperate to ensure stability in the Middle East. Salihi noted that "Turkey and Iran can provide the peace and security needed in the Middle East," the Cihan news agency reported. Salihi also repeated that the two countries are the major leaders in the region.

"The security in the region is collective. It is inseparable [among countries]. One country's security is the security of the entire region," Salihi added, reaffirming that Iran is worried about the Arab Spring developments. Davutoğlu also likened the tension in Iraq to the tension that has been going on in Syria since early last year.

"What is going on in Iraq is releasing signals of sectarian-based tension, much like in Syria," Davutoğlu said. He also voiced his concern regarding the Shiite leadership's moves at the expense of the Sunni bloc, in what he called "a prejudicial purge," and warned that there is a "fault line" that such power struggles will eventually fracture.

In a related development, the head of an influential Shiite bloc in Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr, asked for a meeting with Davutoğlu in Tehran -- a surprise move that was not originally on the Turkish foreign minister's schedule. Sadr's party backs Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc, but last week, following an arrest warrant issued for the capture of the most senior Sunni official of Iraq, Sadr suggested that Iraq could resort to early elections to dodge more conflict.

The arrest warrant also encouraged bomb attacks in Baghdad. This has been coupled with pressure caused by the main Sunni bloc's temporary withdrawal from Parliament in protest of the Shiite grasp for power in Iraq.

In a press meeting on Thursday, Davutoğlu also affirmed the close partnership between Turkey and Iran, denying claims that the NATO defense shield Turkey permitted in eastern Anatolia was meant to target Iran, a country the U.S. has made no secret that it labels a threat.

"We do not regard any country a threat to us. We confide in Iran and Iran confides in us -- the trust is mutual," Davutoğlu said from Tehran, in a speech broadcast by NTV on Thursday.

When Turkey agreed to deploy the early-warning radar system, the country removed from the agreement the clause that mentions Iran since Turkey claims the radar system is meant only for defense, and Iran would not be a target of the system, despite Iranian concerns.

"This is for defensive purposes only," Davutoğlu said. "We guarantee that this is not a threat to Iran. We would never take any step that could negatively affect our relations without neighbor," he added.

Davutoğlu also discussed the developments in Syria, which he said Wednesday are worrying to Ankara. Turkey believes that the protests for democracy were met with a bloody challenge by the Syrian state, and the country runs the risk of a sectarian clash.

Erdogan, Biden Concerned about Chaos in Post-U.S. Iraq

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and United States Vice President Joe Biden discussed on the phone latest developments in Iraq after the pullout of U.S. troops last year, where the Turkish prime minister and Biden agreed they are concerned over the chaos in Iraq.

An apparently coordinated wave of bombings targeting Shiite Muslims killed at least 78 people in Iraq on Thursday, the second large-scale assault by militants since U.S. forces pulled out of the war-torn last month, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

The attacks, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents, come ahead of a Shiite holy day that draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Iraq, raising fears of a deepening of sectarian bloodshed. Rifts along the country's Sunni-Shiite fault line just a few years ago pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

The bombings in Baghdad and outside the southern city of Nasiriyah appeared to be the deadliest in Iraq in more than a year. Thursday's blasts occurred at a particularly unstable time for Iraq's fledgling democracy.

A broad-based unity government designed to include the country's main factions is mired in a political crisis pitting politicians from the Shiite majority now in power against the Sunni minority, which reigned supreme under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Some Iraqis blame that political discord for the lethal strikes.

Sources said Erdoğan told Biden that previous efforts for peace and stability will be wasted if Iraq distances itself from the culture of democracy. Both officials also agreed that authoritarian and sectarian policies will never benefit Iraq.

Erdoğan and Biden agreed that Turkey and the U.S. sees benefit in holding dialogue and consultations regarding the developments in Iraq.

MIT Issues Second Denial of Intelligence Blunder

The National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, has issued a second detailed statement strongly denying reports it supplied the faulty intelligence prompting the bombing of civilians mistaken for militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Contrary to media reports, "MİT shared no intelligence on groups, locations, numbers, dates or routes that may have been related to the deaths of the 35 citizens," a press release said Thursday, pointing out that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already explained this on Dec. 30, two days after the botched strike on the Iraqi border.

Without mentioning him by name, the statement said Mehmet Baransu of the daily Taraf continued to report MİT was responsible and sought to back up his "fabrications," citing "reports on [PKK] activity at the border leaked to him, which had nothing to do with the operation that led to the death of 35 people and included some outdated ones."

Only one of the intelligence reports Taraf cited pertained to the Uludere area, but it did not contain any information about an expected infiltration attempt, the statement said.

Taraf's claims that MİT had confirmed the people advancing to the border were PKK militants when it was contacted shortly before the strike, after suspicions emerged that the group might be civilians have been dubbed "sheer lies and fantasy."

President Abdullah Gül, meanwhile, said he had received detailed information regarding the bombing in talks with the MİT chief, the prime minister and the chief of General Staff the previous day.

"A rigorous investigation is being conducted by both the Turkish Armed Forces and prosecutors into what mistake led to the incident," he said in the northwestern city of Bolu. "The court [in Şırnak] has decided on secrecy. This is crucial for the accuracy of the investigation."

The Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, which argues the bombing was deliberate, submitted a motion for a parliamentary investigation and said it was looking into whether any international platforms were available to take the issue on.

"It is obvious the government is responsible, also with respect to international law. We are studying everything, from the International Criminal Court to the UN Human Rights Commission," BDP Co-Chair Hasip Kaplan said.

He denounced the blackout imposed on the investigation as a move to "cover up the evidence and protect those who are guilty." MİT's insistence it did not have any knowledge of the incident is "horrible," he said.

The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, also raised misgivings the judicial secrecy ruling would serve to cover up the truth. Decrying double standards, CHP Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu argued the authorities were trying to steer attention away from the botched raid, charging that the contradictory procedures were "a clear indication of how far the judiciary has come in engineering the agenda under government supervision."

Turkey May Step Up Moves Against Paris on Genocide, Diplomat Says

Turkey may step up action against France if the French Senate votes this month to outlaw denial of the Armenian genocide, a Turkish diplomatic source said Thursday.

"There may be a downgrading of the Turkish diplomatic representation in Paris. It is probable," if the upper house of Parliament approves the bill criminalizing denial of the disputed 1915 genocide, the source told the AFP.

The French lower house approved the law last month, threatening anyone who denies that the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turk forces amounted to genocide with jail.

Ankara froze political and military ties with France when the bill was passed by the National Assembly, and threatened further measures if it continues through the Senate or is approved by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Turkey has withdrawn its ambassador to Paris, but embassy officials said Thursday that he will return next Monday in order to monitor the Senate's handling of the bill.

In 1915 and 1916, during World War I, many Armenians died in Ottoman Turkey. Armenia says 1.5 million were killed in genocide. Turkey says around 500,000 died in fighting after Armenians sided with Russian invaders.

France recognized the killings as genocide in 2001, but the new bill would punish anyone who denies this with a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($60,000).

Modern Turkey is still very sensitive about the issue, and has accused France of attacking freedom of expression and free historical enquiry.

France is home to an estimated 500,000 citizens of Armenian descent, and Sarkozy's UMP party has been accused of backing the law in order to pander to a key electoral group ahead of presidential and legislative elections this year.

It is backed by a cross-party majority of lawmakers, but has not won universal support in the government, where some ministers fear it will hurt diplomatic and trade ties with a NATO ally and major economic partner.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has said publicly that the bill is "badly timed" and has been reported as describing it privately as "stupid".

Peace Talks Going Well, Cyprus Says

Turkish Cyprus President Derviş Eroğlu said the intensive talks with the island's southern part were going well, a contrast to Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias' recent statements.

"For us, the negotiations are going well," Eroğlu told the daily Hürriyet Thursday. "But Christofias said the Jan. 4 negotiations were proceeding poorly. If no agreement were reached soon, there would be no reason to convene for special upcoming talks in New York."

Eroğlu said Christofias claims 165,000 Greek Cypriots migrated to the southern part of Cyprus after Turkey intervened in 1974.

"I ask [Christofias] whether any of those have died since 1974. He says he is counting those [deceased], too. He demands Mesaoria plain, which is at the center of Morphou and Karpas for those 100,000 migrants," Eroğlu said, adding that he wouldn't be surprised if the Greek Cypriot leader demanded Kyrenia, too.

The property issue is the toughest among the other six chapters the two sides are negotiating, according to Eroğlu. He said the United Nations embraces the 60 pages of suggestions by Turkish Cyprus.

There is a deadlock in governance and power-sharing issues as well, he added.

"The negotiations on economy and internal security have almost finished. Guarantors issue is going to be discussed in international conference," he said.

Eroğlu said both leaders promised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon they would not make any negative statements about the other side, but the Greek side still continues to blame Turkish Cyprus and Turkey in its statements.

Eroğlu also said Ankara does not affect their decisions but the Turkish Cypriot government conveys its solution suggestions to Ankara only to inform them.

"[Ankara] has not objected to any of our suggestions so far," Eroğlu said, adding that the situation was not the same for the island's Greek side.

Japanese Foreign Minister Gemba Due to Ankara

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba will be arriving in Turkey on a two-day working trip.

In a statement released Thursday, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or MFA, said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Japanese counterpart Gemba would meet on Friday and discuss bilateral relations as well as regional and international issues.

Gemba will be received by Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and meet with Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan.

Gemba will be received by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul.

This will be Gemba's first trip to Turkey as the Japan's foreign minister.

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