Ten people were arrested in Turkey on Thursday in an operation targeting people affiliated with the faith-based Gülen movement amid discussions of an amnesty for prison inmates due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The operation was carried out as part of a counterterrorism investigation conducted by the Terrorism and Organized Crime Bureau of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
The arrests took place while the government was presenting a bill to reduce the number of prison inmates amid fear of the spread of the coronavirus to the country’s overcrowded correctional facilities. Turkish prisons currently house some 300,000 inmates, far exceeding their 200,000 capacity, a circumstance that makes the inmates more vulnerable to infection.
Ten persons, eight of whom were women, were detained in Istanbul on allegations of conducting activities aimed at keeping up the morale of members of the Gülen movement, re-energizing them and providing financial support to prison inmates and their families, the agency reported.
According to Anadolu, the police concluded that the suspects held gatherings and met in shopping malls to prevent detection, preferring face-to-face meetings instead of using communication devices, and donated the money they collected to prison inmates and their families in need.
“The police seized as criminal evidence digital materials, 2 F-series US 1 dollar bills, organizational documents and mobile phones found in the homes and body searches of the suspects,” the agency said.
In line with the new evidence 28 suspects were detained, including a female police officer who had contact with the organization. In the meantime, it was noted that the suspects had supported a previous detainee by starting a hashtag on social media.
The prosecutor’s office that conducted the investigation sent all 28 suspects to an Istanbul Penal Court of Peace, demanding their arrest on charges of membership in an armed terrorist organization. The Istanbul court arrested 10 of the detainees including the police officer, releasing the other 18 suspects under judicial supervision, meaning that they must periodically report to a local police station and are prohibited from traveling abroad.
The government bill reportedly provides overt or covert amnesty to a broad range of criminals including sex offenders and drug dealers but excludes so-called political prisoners who have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes and crimes against the constitutional order. It means in practice that tens of thousands of dissidents, journalists, political activists, politicians, academics and civil servants imprisoned on flimsy terrorism-related charges will not benefit from the legislation.
This move attracted criticism from human rights organizations, relatives of the prisoners and the international community. An important warning came on March 25 from the UN high commissioner for human rights, who called on the governments to “release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”
Prominent Turkish human rights activists and lawyers indicated that Turkish judges and prosecutors are too quick to resort to pre-trial detention when it comes to politically motivated charges, a fact graphically evidenced by the recent arrest of the Gülenists. Arresting people because they engaged in charity work, tried to keep up the morale of the families of prisoners, collected donations for prisoners or their family members, who have been reduced to a dire state, or had in their possession F-series US 1 dollar bills, millions of which are in circulation throughout the world, hardly qualifies as sound legal evidence for pre-trial detention.
Acting on this, Professor Adem Sözüer, a criminal law expert, had earlier urged Turkish judges and prosecutors to employ the mechanism of judicial supervision in the first instance instead of routinely handing out pre-trial detention orders as a step towards reducing the prison population.
It is widely accepted that the Turkish government has misused its counterterrorism laws to crack down on dissidents. The international community, including the Council of Europe, the UN commissioner for human rights, the European Court of Human Rights and various UN bodies and NGOs, have time and again alleged this misuse, calling on Turkey to bring its counterterrorism legislation in line with international human rights standards. Turkey has so far turned a deaf ear to these calls.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been persecuting followers of the Gülen movement, led by US-based Turkish-Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been at loggerheads with the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013 in which Erdoğan, his son, four of his ministers and other Justice and Development Party (AKP) politicians were either incriminated or implicated. Dismissing these investigations of tremendous scale as a Gülenist conspiracy, he designated the Gülen movement as an armed terrorist organization and seized all Gülen-affiliated media outlets and a bank partially owned by people connected to the movement. After a July 15, 2016 coup attempt, which he accused Gülen of masterminding — an accusation strongly denied by Gülen — he launched a witch hunt against the movement, dismissing some 150,000 government officials including teachers, doctors, academics, lawyers, journalists, police officers and military personnel through cabinet decrees that cannot be challenged in court, locking up hundreds of thousands of them and seizing their assets.