Turkish court bails rights activists but Amnesty chairman remains in jail

Post coup demonstration by Erdogan supporters. Istanbul, Turkey, 22 July, 2016 – image by Mstyslav Chernov CC BY-SA 4.0

Ten human-rights activists have been released on bail in Turkey but Amnesty International’s chairman remains in custody, according to the rights organization.

Amnesty International praised the release of 10 other activists but condemned the continued detention of Chairman Taner Kilic.

“The release of the Istanbul 10 late last night restored some faith in Turkey’s justice system. Today, that faith has been washed away,” it said in a statement. While Amnesty said 10 activists had been released, The Associated Press said only 8 had been freed pending verdicts in their trials on on charges of belonging to and aiding terror groups.

Amnesty’s Kilic was detained on June 6 in the Western Turkish city of Izmir, along with 22 lawyers, and charged with “membership of a terror organization,” according to Deutsche Welle. A month later, on July 5, 10 other human rights defenders were detained during a digital security training event on one of Istanbul’s Princes Islands.

According to The Guardian, the activists arrested on July 5 were İdil Eser (Amnesty International), Günal Kurşun (Human Rights Agenda Association), Özlem Dalkıran (Citizens’ Assembly), Veli Acu (Human Rights Agenda Association), Ali Gharavi (IT strategy consultant), Peter Steudtner (non-violence and wellbeing trainer) and İlknur Üstün (Women’s Coalition) and Nalan Erkem (Citizens’ Assembly). Şeyhmus Özbekli (Rights Initiative) and Nejat Taştan (Association for Monitoring Equal Rights) were released on bail.

Since the failed July 2015 coup attempt, Turkey’s government has arrested more than 50,000 people – which it says is in order to deal with alleged coup plotters, according to The Associated Press. Journalists and human-rights activists also have been caught up in the crackdown, which rights-groups say are an attempt to stifle government criticism.

Gharavi and Steudtner had been in Istanbul to give privacy and security training to human-rights defenders. After the arrest of the activists, President Tayyip Erdogan stated that the group had “gathered for a meeting which was a continuation of July 15,” referencing the date of the failed coup.

In July, a criminal court charged Gharavi and Steudtner with “committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member.”

Turkey’s government claims the failed coup was orchestrated by a movement linked to US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. And alleged use of a message app called Bylock – which Turkish authorities say constitutes evidence of membership in a pro-Gulen terrorist organization – has been cited as evidence against journalists and human-rights activits.

The Turkish government claimed in 2016 to have broken the application’s security which it said had allowed it to uncover thousands of Gulenists, according to The Guardian.

At the start of his trial, Kılıç denied that he had used the ByLock application. Kılıç was quoted as saying that two forensic reports found no evidence that ByLock had ever been downloaded on his phone.

On October 25 – following a 12 hour opening session at the Çağlayan court in Istanbul–  a judge decided to bail the activists, according to The Guardian. But hours later Kilic, the Amnesty Turkey chairman, was remanded in custody in Izmir, according to Al Jazeera.

In a statement, Amnesty said that it would continue to put pressure on authorities until all of the accused were freed and acquitted.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other government critics in Turkey have been charged with similar crimes –  like the group “Academics for Peace,” a collection of over 2000 educators who signed a letter opposing the Turkish military’s treatment of Kurdish civilians in the southeast part of the country.

Members of “Academics for Peace” are facing terror charges, according to Human Rights Watch. The rights group says signatories of the petition were fired from their academic roles and have been targeted by government supporters – such as Sedat Peker, a convicted mafia boss and media personality who has 1.5 million Facebook followers.

Turkish Minute – a local website with purported ties to Gulen – reported that Peker recently defended as ‘criticism’ threats he made towards the group in 2016, when he reportedly threatened to “shed your blood in streams and we will shower in the blood that we shed.”

The European Court of Human Rights rejected a petition from the Academics for Peace to hear a case that their rights to freedom of expression had been violated, ordering them to wait for the Turkish government’s State of Emergency Commission to investigate the matter.

That doesn’t mean all government criticism has ceased. A new political party being set up by Meral Aksener, a right wing nationalist, has taken aim at the government, according to Voice of America.

“Media should not be under pressure. Democratic participation, a strong parliament and the national will are irreplaceable,” she said.

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