In State of Emergency, Turkey Jails Six Human Rights Defenders Pending Trial

Demonstrators on World Press Freedom Day in Turkey 2013. Image by Amnesty International Turkey.

An Istanbul court ruled on 18 July that six of the 10 human rights defenders detained in Turkey since 5 July will be remanded in pre-trial detention. The remaining four detainees will be released on bail.

The judge cited “aiding an armed terrorist organization” as the reason for keeping six of the rights defenders in custody.

The arrests took place while the group was gathered for a digital security and information management workshop on one of Istanbul's islands, Buyukada. Police raided the workshop, detained the participants, and confiscated electronic equipment including computers and mobile phones.

According to Amnesty International, the six jailed human rights defenders are 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) and Peter Steudtner (non-violence and wellbeing trainer). All are Turkish nationals, with the exception of Gharavi, who is a Swedish national, and Steudtner, who is a German citizen.

On 17 July, all 10 defenders were brought to the public prosecutor's office for individual questioning, after having been questioned by the police on 16 July. Videos posted by the Free Rights Defenders Twitter account showed the detained rights defenders at the courthouse speaking with their supporters:

After the statement Ozlem Dalkiran's message: “I am well. Do not worry.”

Local civil society contacts told Global Voices that the six are arrested pending a trial over accusations that they aided an armed terror group, though it remains unclear whether or not they have been formally charged, and authorities have cited no evidence to support this accusation. All of those detained on July 5 demonstrate a commitment to peaceful, constructive protection of the rights of all Turkish people as enshrined in local laws and international human rights norms.

The four rights defenders who have been released are barred from traveling abroad and must report regularly to the police.

German media outlet Spiegel Online described the situation as “repression reaching a new dimension” in Turkey.

The Guardian quoted Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty as saying:

This is not a legitimate investigation, this is a politically motivated witch-hunt that charts a frightening future for rights in Turkey.

The group faces the same charge as Amnesty Turkey head Taner Kilic, who was detained just a month ago.

Daniel Ó Cluanaigh, Berlin-based human rights consultant and colleague of Gharavi and Steudtner, said in a press statement:

We are shocked that Ali and Peter's support for peaceful human rights defenders has led to their imprisonment. The accusations of aiding an armed terrorist organisation against them are groundless. Workshops of this kind are common, essential education for human rights organisations, so that they can protect sensitive information, such as testimonies from witnesses of human rights violations or personal information of victims. We demand the immediate and unconditional release of Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner as well as their four colleagues.

On the same day, the Turkish government voted to extend the state of emergency in the country for the fourth time, by an additional three months.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Sunday urged Turkey to uphold democratic values if it hopes to join the European Union, after a year of purges following the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

Supporters of the rights defenders used Twitter to share anger and sadness at the decision, under the hashtags #FreeRightsDefenders, #Istanbul10 and #HakSavunucularınaDokunma (hands off human rights defenders).

The director of Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International tweeted:

Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International, was at the courthouse tweeting updates:

In Istanbul, supporters and friends went to the courthouse to show their support:

We have been in front of the courthouse for the last 13 hours in support of our friends. They have concluded giving their statements. We continue to wait.

Since their detention, protests have been held around the world calling for their release.

Observers call the court decision a “new low”. But in a country where “new lows” have become the norm since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, this may be an understatement.

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