EXCLUSIVE: Boss of jailed journalists blasts ‘baseless’ charges

Phil Pendlebury
Phil Pendlebury

THE boss of a brave Wigan cameraman incarcerated in a Turkish jail on what are widely regarded as bogus terrorism charges today welcomed a Wigan campaign to get him released.

VICE News editorial chief Kevin Sutcliffe said that Phil Pendlebury - “a hardy Lancastrian” - was more likely to be bemused rather than frightened by his ordeal.

Clearly all this is ludicrous and nonsense; the charges are baseless and I really don’t know where they got them from. No-one is buying these allegations for a minute. The staff have been targeted for doing their job and doing it very well

Kevin Sutcliffe

Meanwhile a second legal team had been appointed to help the Whitley 28-year-old old, correspondent Jake Hanrahan and translator/journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool, after it was discovered that they had been transferred to a high-security jail five hours from the court in Diyarbakir where they have been appearing.

The trio were arrested last Thursday while filming and reporting on clashes between Turkish police and pro-Kurd demonstrators from the PKK.

It has since been alleged that they have somehow been in cahoots with Islamic State and/or PKK - claims described by both VICE News and Amnesty International as baseless and outrageous.

The Foreign Office has since issued a statement voicing concern, and Wigan MP Lisa Nandy is liaising with ministers over ways of hastening the men’s release.

Yesterday the Wigan Evening Post and its website wigantoday launched a social media campaign calling for Phil and his colleagues’ immediate release. We are urging readers either to tweet or share messages on Facebook using the hashtag #freeVICEnewsstaff as soon as possible.

This was endorsed by Mr Sutcliffe in an exclusive interview with the Wigan Evening Post last night.

He said today that Phil has been one of the key members of VICE News’s team in London since its launch two years ago and describes him as an “excellent cameraman with an excellent eye” who is popular in the office and a real team player.

Mr Sutcliffe added: “This has hit us very hard. All his mates are doing their best to get the message out there about this injustice.

“Clearly all this is ludicrous and nonsense; the charges are baseless and I really don’t know where they got them from. No-one is buying these allegations for a minute. The staff have been targeted for doing their job and doing it very well.

“Phil has made a number of films on the issues in this area of Turkey and was trying to get a very hard-to-report story out there.”

Mr Sutcliffe said that a team of lawyers had been in Diyarbakir since Friday, making sure the three had “the best possible representation. Although direct contact is not possible with Phil, Jake and Homammed, and we are not allowed in court, messages have been passed to them by the lawyers so they know that we are onto the case.

“What was shocking on Tuesday though was that the lawyers went off to the local prison in Diyarbakir to be told tour men were not there. After rooting around we heard that they had been moved to another prison five hours away because the Diyarbakir one was full. However, the court cases will continue to be heard in Diyarbakir. That said, we are instructing new lawyers based nearer the second prison to act for them.”

Mr Sutcliffe said that what was particularly shocking and surprising about the whole situation was that Turkey is a partner of the US and Britain in the fight against Islamic State.

“Yet this is what happens when someone tries to report on what is going on. We are looking how to help Turkey reverse out of the mistake it has made and quickly,” he added.

Asked about the mood of the captives, Mr Sutcliffe said: “They must be feeling it at the moment. It’s a tough call for them.

“The lawyers we are in touch with have reported that they are being treated fairly.

“I think they are bearing up. If I know Phil, he is probably a bit bemused, saying ‘what’s this all about?’ He’s a hardy Lancastrian.”

Mr Sutcliffe added: “We have a few more days of legal objections to these ludicrous charges before finding out what happens next.

“This has become an international story and has been big news in Turkey, Britain and appeared in the New York Times. To arrest a couple of journalists doing their job is a big deal and it’s unusual for a state to do, especially one that is supposed to be an ally.”

Mr Sutcliffe said that risk assessments were always made before sending out teams on assignments. He said that VICE News had been reporting and filming in the Diyarbakir region a lot without problems, although he admitted that attitudes had hardened in just the last few weeks.

“Something political has changed,” a spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “We are concerned at the arrest of two British journalists in Diyarbakir on August 31, who have been charged with assisting a terrorist organisation. The journalists have been given access to a lawyer and were in direct contact with consular officials within 24 hours of their detention.

“Respect for freedom of expression and the right of media to operate without restriction are fundamental in any democratic society. Turkey is a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights and UN Declaration of Human Rights. We would expect the Turkish authorities to uphold the obligations enshrined in those agreements.”

A spokesman for Amnesty International said: “It is completely proper that journalists should cover this important story.

“The decision to detain the journalists was wrong, while the allegation of assisting the Islamic State is unsubstantiated, outrageous, and bizarre.”