UN Working Group finds deprivation of liberty due to Gülen links arbitrary, unlawful and based on prohibited discriminatory ground

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found at its 87th session held between April 27 and May 1, 2020 that the deprivation of liberty due to Gülen links of three individuals was arbitrary, lacked a legal basis and violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It further held that those with alleged links to the Gülen movement are being targeted on the basis of their political or other opinions constituting a prohibited discriminatory ground.

Three Turkish nationals — Abdulmuttalip Kurt, Akif Oruç and Faruk Serdar Köse — arrested by Turkish authorities on charges of membership in the Gülen movement, a faith-based group led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is critical of the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, brought their complaints before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

In its opinions the working group called on the Turkish government to immediately release the complainants and accord them compensation, also urging the government to take urgent action vis-à-vis the threat posed by coronavirus global pandemic in places of detention.

“The Working Group considers that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Kurt immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law. In the current context of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic and the threat that it poses in places of detention, the Working Group calls on the Government to take urgent action in ensuring the immediate release of […].”

In its opinions, the working group presented important conclusions that may have a bearing on all cases of deprivation of liberty over Gülen links that have occurred in the aftermath of a July 2016 coup attempt.

President Erdoğan began to target followers of the Gülen movement after two corruption investigations that became public knowledge on December 17 and 25, 2013, which implicated him, four of his ministers and other prominent figures from his government or support base. Accusing the movement of instigating the investigations, Erdoğan designated the movement an armed terrorist organization and seized all Gülen-affiliated media outlets, private lender Bank Asya and businesses partially or wholly owned by people affiliated with the movement.

After the failed coup on July 15, 2016, which Erdoğan accused Gülen of masterminding — an accusation strongly denied by Gülen — he declared an all-out war on the Gülen movement, in the process locking up hundreds of thousands of people affiliated with the movement and seizing their assets.

Following the coup attempt the Turkish government accepted such activities as having an account at Bank Asya, holding an administrative position at a Gülen movement-linked institution, subscribing to the Zaman daily or other perceived Gülenist publications, being a member of a trade union or other institution linked to the Gülen movement and using the encrypted messaging application ByLock as benchmarks for identifying and arresting tens of thousands of followers of the Gülen movement on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.

According to the UN working group none of those activities in itself could be construed as a criminal act, but rather as the peaceful exercise of rights granted under human rights treaties.

“However,[…] none of those activities in itself could be construed as a criminal act, but rather as the peaceful exercise of the rights protected by the Covenant and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Notably, the Government has not indicated that any of these actions by Mr. Kurt were violent or incited others to violence. In fact, there is nothing in the Government’s response that would indicate that all these actions were something other than the peaceful exercise of Mr. Kurt’s rights under the Covenant, including his rights to hold opinions and to freedom of association.”

“[I]t is clear to the Working Group that, even if Mr. Oruç did use the ByLock application, it would have been merely in exercise of his freedom of opinion and expression. Those rights, as defined in article 19 of the Covenant, constitute the foundation of every free and democratic society.”

The working group further found that those with alleged links to the Gülen movement including the complainants are targeted on the basis of their political or other opinion which is a prohibited discriminatory ground.

“The present case is the latest case concerning individuals with alleged links to the Hizmet [Gülen] movement that has come before the Working Group in the past two years. In all these cases, the Working Group has found that the detention of the individuals concerned was arbitrary, and it appears that a pattern is emerging whereby those with alleged links to the Hizmet movement are being targeted on the basis of their political or other opinion. Accordingly, the Working Group finds that the Government detained […] on the basis of a prohibited ground for discrimination …”

The working group further declared that Turkey’s derogation under Article 4 of the covenant from its human rights obligations during a state of emergency cannot justify a deprivation of liberty that is unreasonable or unnecessary.

Welcoming the lifting of the state of emergency in Turkey in July 2018 and the revocation of the derogation made in respect of its obligations under the covenant, the Working Group, however, reminded the government that a large number of individuals were arrested following the attempted coup d’état, including judges and prosecutors, and that many remain in detention and are still standing trial. The Working Group urged the government to resolve those cases as quickly as possible in accordance with its international human rights obligations.

Noting a significant increase in the number of cases brought before it concerning arbitrary detention in Turkey in the past three years, the Working Group expressed its grave concern at the pattern that all these cases follow and urged the government to implement its opinions without further delay.

Previously, the UN Human Rights Committee in a decision dated May 28, 2019 found violations in the individual applications of academic İsmet Özçelik and Turgay Karaman, director of the Time International School who had been taken into custody in Malaysia and brought to Turkey on allegations of being followers of the Gülen movement. Calling on the Turkish authorities to release Özçelik and Karaman, the committee gave Turkey 180 days to implement the decision, which Turkey declined to do.

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