The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has concluded in two separate cases that the arrest and detention of individuals with alleged ties to the Gülen movement was arbitrary and urged the Turkish government to ensure a full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding their detention and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of their rights.
The cases in question were about Nermin Yaşar, a teacher, and Levent Kart, dean of the medical faculty of the now-defunct Fatih University, both arrested and later convicted of membership in a terrorist organization due to their alleged links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based movement inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. WGAD said the appropriate remedy in both cases would be the unconditional release of the victims and the according of enforceable rights to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.
The charges against Yaşar were based on alleged use of the ByLock mobile messaging application and of founding a society called Empati Kadın ve İş Derneği (Empathy Women and Business Association). After staying in police detention for 20 days in a small and unsanitary cell with 33 other women where she was subjected to severe sleep deprivation, Yaşar was put under pre-trial detention on November 16, 2016. Her indictment was submitted to the court 10 months later, on August 11, 2017. She was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in April 2018.
Professor Kart was arrested in December 2017 and was held for questioning in a custody room at the İstanbul Courthouse, a small underground room with more than 20 people where he did not have enough space to sit or lie down to sleep. He was sentenced to six years, three months’ imprisonment on January 16, 2019. The charges against him were based on his being a member of the academic staff at a Gülen movement-affiliated university, his alleged use of the ByLock application and having a bank account at Bank Asya, a Gülen movement-affiliated financial institution that was one of Turkey’s biggest commercial banks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.
Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.
In response to the allegations about the victims, the Turkish government gave no details concerning the specific situation of the individuals in question but provided its views on the Gülen movement. According to WGAD’s opinions, in both cases the Turkish government claimed that the movement “is now employing the strategy of presenting itself as the victim of human rights violations to hide its crimes.”
Instead of responding to allegations the Turkish government requested “the special procedures, including the Working Group, not to allow the Fethullah terrorist organization and its members to abuse those mechanisms, and to dismiss their allegations.”
The Working Group said it treats all submissions made to it equally and accepts them as allegations, inviting the government concerned to respond. “The onus therefore rests upon the [Turkish] Government to engage with the Working Group constructively by addressing the specific allegations made,” WGAD said.
The working group observed that in the present cases, as in many others, the essence of the allegations of alliance with the Gülen movement was based on such regular daily activities as working at a university, having a bank account and using a communication application. However, WGAD noted that the Turkish government failed to explain how any of these three alleged activities amounted to a criminal act.
Similarly, the working group said the Turkish government failed to produce any credible evidence to reasonably implicate the victims “in specific violent or criminal acts that pose threats to the rights and freedoms of others, morality, public order and the general welfare.”
In Yaşar’s case WGAD said it “found no legitimate aim or objective in a free and democratic society to justify her deprivation of liberty for her exercise of freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association and freedom to take part in the conduct of public affairs. Her detention was therefore neither necessary nor proportionate.”
In both cases WGAD noted that the case in question was one of a series of cases concerning individuals with alleged links to the Gülen movement that had come before it in the past three years. “In all these cases, the Working Group has found that the detention of the concerned individuals was arbitrary. 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, in violation of article 26 of the Covenant,” the working group said.
WGAD found that in both cases the government of Turkey detained the victims based on prohibited grounds for discrimination and that their detention was thus arbitrary, falling under what is called the Category V, which involves cases where “the deprivation of liberty constitutes a violation of international law for reasons of discrimination based on birth; national, ethnic or social origin; language; religion; economic condition; political or other opinion; gender; sexual orientation; or disability or other status, and which aims towards or can result in ignoring the equality of human rights.”
In both opinions, recalling Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, WGAD underlined the need for the authorities to inform anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge the reasons for his arrest and to bring the suspect promptly, typically within 48 hours, before a judicial authority, so that the accused can challenge the legality of his/her detention before a court as envisaged by the covenant.
According to a statement from Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on February 20, a total of 622,646 people have been the subject of investigation and 301,932 have been detained, while 96,000 others have been jailed due to alleged links to the Gülen movement since the failed coup. The minister said there are currently 25,467 people in Turkey’s prisons who were jailed on alleged links to the Gülen movement.