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Turkish court accepts 'absurd' indictment of rights activists

Amnesty International's Turkey leaders are among 11 human rights defenders indicted on terror charges for holding a workshop on information security and stress management, and the trial is set to begin Oct. 25.

A Turkish court accepted an indictment this week of 11 human rights activists on terrorism charges that carry prison sentences of up to 15 years in a case the United Nations has said could “silence” critics.

The defendants include Taner Kilic, the chairman of Amnesty International in Turkey, and Idil Eser, Amnesty International’s Turkey director, who were implicated after police raided a workshop on coping with stress and information security on an island off the Istanbul coastline in July.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the meeting was an attempt to prolong a failed military coup that sought to overthrow him in July 2016.

“This is clearly an overtly politically motivated prosecution [in which] public statements by officials have been problematic and prejudicial to the investigation,” Andrew Gardner, Amnesty’s researcher on Turkey, told Al-Monitor. “In Turkey, the political leaders and the pro-government media are driving these events, not an independent investigation.”

Also in jail awaiting the trial set to begin on Oct. 25 are Swiss national Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner, a German citizen whose arrest escalated diplomatic tensions with Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel said the case exemplified how “innocent people are caught up in the wheels of justice” in Turkey.

The UN’s office on human rights said at the time the “arbitrary detention and arrests” prevented rights defenders from working in safety and that they “must not be silenced.”

The dense, at times garbled 17-page indictment seeks prison sentences of between 7.5 and 15 years for attending an “illegal” meeting. One columnist who is normally sympathetic to the government called it an “indictment of absurdities.”

The suspects are accused of aiding an assortment of outlawed groups. A Facebook message from a self-proclaimed member of the armed Kurdistan Workers Party asking about joining Amnesty is presented as proof the international rights group shelters militants. 

Other evidence included a text message urging workshop participants to turn off their phones and “enjoy the boat ride” to one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist destinations.

The prosecutor also accused the activists of attempting to exploit the main opposition Republican People’s Party Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s march for justice against the government’s crackdown on civil society to “spread turmoil across the country similar to the Gezi Park protests in 2013.”

Amnesty’s Kilic was not at the workshop because he was jailed the month before, but he is still accused of organizing the seminar and of membership in a religious network headed by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey says masterminded the July 2016 coup attempt. The new indictment risks trying him twice for the same alleged crimes.

The main evidence against Kilic appears to be that his cellphone allegedly contained ByLock, an encrypted messaging application authorities say was used by Gulen’s followers. Kilic is quoted in the indictment as saying he did not download the software, and Gardner said two expert reports show that ByLock was never downloaded to his phone.

Turkey has jailed more than 50,000 people and sacked about 110,000 civil servants and members of the security forces under a state of emergency following the coup attempt. This week the government extended the state of emergency for another three months, giving it the power to rule by decree.

In more signs of the deteriorating climate this week, a prosecutor opened an investigation into a local Fox TV presenter and his lawyer after the journalist reported that a Cabinet minister’s spouse had used ByLock. Both men are accused of insulting a state official and denigrating the government.

On Tuesday, another prosecutor said he was seeking almost 13 years in prison for the online editor at Cumhuriyet for a tweet on the newspaper’s account that said a prosecutor investigating the coup plot had been “mowed down” when he was killed in a traffic accident. The tweet was deleted 55 seconds later. The editor is accused of “spreading terrorist propaganda.”

Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest dailies and among the last still criticizing the government, is already at the center of the trial of 17 of its staff members accused of aiding the Gulenist network.

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, submitted a report to the European Court of Human Rights accusing Turkey of violating the court’s fundamental conventions by using the judiciary to silence critics and impede free speech in the Cumhuriyet trial, the paper reported. Muiznieks’ office did not reply to a request for comment.

The next hearing in the Cumhuriyet trial is set for Oct. 31. On Oct. 24, the trial begins for six journalists who reported on leaked emails purportedly belonging to Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, the country’s energy minister. They are accused of disclosing state secrets.

“All of these cases that have come under the post-coup crackdown that have encompassed journalists, political activists and now human rights defenders … are part of a policy to silence [those] who are dissenting against the government’s policy under the state of emergency,” Amnesty’s Gardner said.

He added, “Unfortunately, there is not an independent judiciary in Turkey in which to try these politicized cases.” 

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