In the wake of the attempted coup in 2016, Turkish authorities have been relentless in suppressing what they see as potential threats - including human rights activists now on trial for terrorism-related charges.
“From the start, this has been a politically-motivated trial aiming to silence those in the dock and send a message to the rest of society: fight for human rights or speak the truth at your peril.”
These are the words of Idil Eser, the former Amnesty Turkey Director and one of the 11 human rights defenders who have spent nearly three years fighting trumped-up charges in Turkey.
On Friday, the wait will be over. They will learn the verdict in a trial that should have never taken place and yet, if any of them is found guilty, they could face up to 15 years behind bars.
Almost three years ago to the day, dozens of police raided a hotel on the picturesque Büyükada island near Istanbul, where the 10 of the 11 were participating in a human rights workshop.
Computers and phones were seized and they were arrested and bundled away in a police van. They - along with another man, former Amnesty International chair Taner Kılıç, who was detained a month earlier, were charged with “terrorism” offences.
The prosecution alleges that the gathering in the hotel where they were arrested had been a “secret meeting to organize a Gezi-type uprising” in order to foment “chaos” in the country.
Over the course of the past 11 hearings, the allegations of being members of or assisting terrorist organisations made against all 11 defendants have been repeatedly and categorically disproven, including by the State’s own evidence. The prosecution’s attempt to present legitimate human rights activities as unlawful acts has comprehensively failed.
After more than 14 months in prison, Taner Kılıç was finally released in August 2018. Eight of the others spent almost four months each behind bars. But thousands of others caught up in Turkey’s deep and far-reaching crackdown on dissent remain in jail.
Indeed, this trial – known as the Büyükada case - is emblematic of the wave of repression that has gripped Turkey for almost four years. Later this month, the prominent civil society figure, Osman Kavala will mark his one-thousandth day in jail on what he rightly called “fantastical charges.” Author and former newspaper editor, Ahmet Altan is approaching his fourth year in prison in September. Both have been targeted as perceived government critics.
It has been almost four years since the failed coup attempt that led to the crackdown, and it shows no sign of abating.
Many of Turkey’s prisons are overcrowded, with tens of thousands on remand or convicted of terrorism-related charges. Likewise, courthouses flooded with cases and fear has become the new norm.
Following the bloody coup attempt in July 2016, the government launched a sustained assault on civil society under the guise of a two-year state of emergency. An astonishing 130,000 public service workers have been arbitrarily dismissed and more than 1,300 non-governmental organisations and 180 media outlets have been closed down. Independent journalism has been all but obliterated. Cases of torture in detention have resurfaced and instances of enforced disappearance have returned to the streets of Turkey’s main cities.
In such circumstances, the job of a human rights activist becomes more vital than ever; more vital but also more dangerous.
Friday’s verdict matters; not just to the women and men in the dock and their families, but to everyone who values human rights.
Human rights defenders around the world have become increasingly targeted. The COVID-19 crisis alone has seen a worrying roll-back of rights across the world with more than 80 countries declaring states of emergency and many adopting extraordinary measures that have impacted rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
The activists in the dock in Turkey this week were aware of the risks they were taking. They knew how standing up for human rights was being increasingly criminalised. And they knew that defending other people’s freedoms in Turkey could ultimately cost them their own.
Sadly, due to lockdown travel restrictions, I will not be with these brave men and women in Istanbul, but I – and tens of thousands around the world – will be with them in spirit.
“It has been a long and difficult ordeal,” says Idil Eser. “We are hoping for the best, but we are ready for the worst.”
- Nils Muiznieks is Amnesty International’s newly-appointed Europe Director
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