Turkish police fire tear gas at protesters

Riot police use tear gas to disperse protesting employees and supporters of Zaman newspaper at the courtyard of the newspaper's office in Istanbul, Turkey March 5, 2016. REUTERS/ Osman Orsal

Turkish police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Saturday to disperse protesters outside the country’s biggest newspaper after authorities seized control of it in a crackdown on a religious group whose leader the government accuses of treason.

A court on Friday appointed an administrator to run the flagship Zaman, English-language Today’s Zaman and Cihan agency, linked to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who President Tayyip Erdogan says was plotting a coup.

Rights groups and European officials condemned the takeover, seeing it as proof that Turkey’s government silences dissident views. Other media outlets affiliated with Gulen’s movement were taken over in October, and companies including a bank have been seized, wiping out billions of dollars in valuations.

“Turkey has the right to question those who take part in a clear coup attempt, whether economic or journalistic, against an elected government,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said while on a trip to Tehran.

“There is a legal process examining charges of political operations, including funneling illegal monies. We have never intervened in the legal process,” he said.

Erdogan has repeatedly pledged to crush Gulen’s conservative religious movement, which he said has infiltrated the police, judiciary and bureaucracy since his party won power in 2002.

“Extremely worried about latest developments on Zaman newspaper which jeopardizes progress made by Turkey in other areas,” European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said on Twitter.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz tweeted the takeover was “yet another blow to press freedom” and said he and Davutoglu would discuss it on Monday.

Critics have accused the European Union of turning a blind eye to Turkey’s rights record because it needs Ankara’s help curbing huge flows of refugees and migrants.

Turkey, which borders Syria, Iraq and Iran, will join EU leaders in Brussels at a crisis summit on Monday. Davutoglu said the “positive agenda will now be occupied and stained” with the issue of press freedom.

“Any country, and in particular those negotiating EU accession, needs to guarantee fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, and due judicial process, in line with the European Convention on Human Rights,” the European Commission said in a statement. (Courtesy Reuters)

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