Turkish court decides to release 8 human rights defenders pending trial

A Turkish court decided to release all eight human rights defenders from jail pending trial on Wednesday in their first hearing before the court after about 5 months of imprisonment.

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) was released by İstanbul’s 25th High Criminal Court. The next trial will be held on November 22, 2017.  If found guilty the human rights defenders still face up to 15 years in jail.

The firs of hearing of human rights activists, including the heads of the local branch of Amnesty International and two Europeans was held on Wednesday at İstanbul’ notorious Çağlayan Courthouse on Wednesday. Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency (AA) posted its report on the trial of human rights defenders with the headline of “Turkish court begins trial for Büyükada terror suspects.”

AA reported that “The first hearing for 11 terror suspects – who were arrested in a police raid during a meeting on Buyukada İsland off İstanbul in July – began on Wednesday. Prosecutors seek up to a 15-year-jail-term for the suspects, who were accused of being members of and aiding an armed terror organization.”

Mustafa Yeneroğlu, deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and chair of the committee on human rights inquiry of Turkish Parliament, Garo Paylan, İstanbul deputy of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Özcan Mutlu, a Turkish-German politician, a number of international journalists and human rights advocates witnessed the court proceedings.

The jailed human rights defenders denied all allegations during the hearing and demanded their acquittal. Özlem Dalkıran, a member of the Turkish wing of the Citizens’ Assembly, a European rights organization, was first to speak at the trial. “I have dedicated my life to truth, human rights and justice. Now I am here being charged with membership of a terrorist organization. I have no idea why we’re here,” Dalkıran told the court.

“Of the terror organizations that I’m accused of aiding in the indictment, I had only heard of two of them from the news before I came to Turkey … None of the information in the indictment links me to any terror organization. I demand my release and acquittal,” Peter Steudtner said in his defense.

“All the allegations against me are based on the work of Annesty International,” Amnesty Turkey Director İdil Eser told the court, after which she explained her functions and the work of the organization.

“This is ostensibly a trial of 10 human rights defenders attending a workshop on an island in İstanbul, but in fact it is the Turkish justice system and the Turkish authorities that are on trial here today,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s director for Europe and Central Asia.

The terrorism charges relate to a digital security and stress training workshop Amnesty held in a hotel outside the city that the prosecuting authorities claim was a secret meeting to organise an uprising, or even conduct espionage. All the accused deny the charges.

“Trumped up terror charges against 11 human rights defenders, including Amnesty International’s Turkey director and chair, do not stand up to the slightest scrutiny,” said Amnesty International on Wednesday in a statement in its website as court proceedings begin in Istanbul and Izmir.

“The charges against them – carrying jail terms of up to 15 years and set out in two indictments to be heard in two separate trials – are entirely baseless,” said the statement. “From the moment of their detentions, it has been clear that these are politically motivated prosecutions aimed at silencing critical voices within Turkey,” said Dalhuisen.

“Without substance or foundation the Turkish authorities have tried and failed to build a case against İdil, Taner and the other nine human rights activists. It took the prosecutor more than three months to come up with nothing. It should not take the judge more than half an hour to dismiss the case against them,” added Dalhuisen.

Ten human rights activists, including İdil Eser, the Director of Amnesty Turkey, were arrested on July 5, 2017, whilst Amnesty International’s Turkey Chair, Taner Kılıç, was arrested a month earlier. They are accused of “membership of a terrorist organization”.

The statement has continued as follow: “The charges against the 11 include outlandish claims that standard human rights protection activities amount to assisting terrorist organizations. These include appealing to stop the sale of tear gas, making a grant application, and campaigning for the release of hunger-striking teachers. According to the indictment, İdil Eser is linked to three unrelated and opposing terrorist organizations and some of the allegations against her refer to two Amnesty International documents which were issued before she even joined the organization.

“The prosecution unsurprisingly offers no evidence to support their allegations that the Büyükada workshop, where the arrests took place, was a “secret meeting to organize a Gezi-type uprising” or that any of the defendants were engaged in wrongdoing. Amnesty International has made a detailed analysis of the indictment, addressing each of the allegations made against the 11 defendants.

“As well as the hearing against the 11 which begins in İstanbul today (Oct. 25), Taner Kılıç will also appear at a hearing tomorrow in İzmir on a separate charge of “membership of the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization”.

“This charge is based on the allegation that he downloaded and used the ByLock messaging application, claimed to have been used by the Gülen movement to communicate. However, two independent forensic analyses of Taner’s phone commissioned by Amnesty International found that there is no trace of Bylock ever having been on his phone.

“The trials come as international pressure mounts on Turkey to release the human rights defenders. Worldwide protests marked 100 days imprisonment for the İstanbul 10 and the birthday of Idil Eser and last week, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and the Chair of the Human Rights Committee in the European Parliament, Pier Antonio Panzeri, all called for their release.

“They join a long list of governments, institutions and political figures that have demanded their release including European Commission, the US State Department, UN officials, Angela Merkel and the German government as well as the Austrian, Irish and Belgian governments.”

“These two trials will be an acid test for the Turkish justice system and will demonstrate whether standing up for human rights has now become a crime in Turkey,” said John Dalhuisen.

He said that “If justice can be subverted by a dystopian fiction woven from absurd and baseless allegations, it will be a dark day for Turkey’s justice system and a grim omen for the future of human rights in the country. With the eyes of the world on these courtrooms in Istanbul and Izmir the time has come for the long overdue unconditional release of our colleagues.”

The İstanbul 10 were attending a workshop on wellbeing and digital security on July 5, 2017 when police raided the building and detained them all. They were held in İstanbul’s police headquarters until July 18, 2017 when they appeared before a judge following the prosecutor’s request that they be sent to prison pending their trial.

On October 4, 2017, an İstanbul prosecutor filed an indictment against the so-called İstanbul 10 and Taner Kılıç, who, it claims was aware of preparations for the Büyükada workshop and was in contact with İdil and another of the defendants.

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