Update October 26, 2015

On October 26, 2015, Turkish media reported that the Istanbul Bakırköy public prosecutor’s office had prepared an indictment against Tahir Elçi on charges of “makıng terrorist propaganda” (article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law), which carries a possible prison sentence of between 1.5 and 7.5 years. The indictment is not yet publicly available and Elçi told Human Rights Watch that neither he nor his lawyer had yet seen it. For a trial to begin against Elçi, a court must rule within two weeks on whether to accept the indictment.

(Istanbul) – The decision to investigate one of Turkey’s most prominent human rights lawyers for “terrorist propaganda” demonstrates the sorry state of freedom of expression and the deeply flawed criminal justice system in Turkey, Human Rights Watch said today.

Tahir Elçi, the head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, was arrested on October 20, 2015, over comments he made on a television program. The deputy chief public prosecutor for the Istanbul municipality of Bakırköy began an investigation into Elçi after he stated, on an October 15 CNN Türk talk show, that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was not a terrorist organization but an armed political movement.

Tahir Elci, the head of Diyarbakir Bar Association, is applauded by his colleagues as he leaves from his office in Diyarbakir, Turkey, early on October 20, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

“Tahir Elçi’s comments on TV fell squarely within the boundaries of acceptable free speech in a democracy,” said Human Right Watch senior Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb. “He committed no recognizable crime and this shocking investigation and travel ban against one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in the country should be dropped immediately.”

On October 19, Bakırköy Penal Judge of the Peace No. 2 issued an order for Elçi’s arrest on the grounds that his whereabouts were not known and that a summons to testify before the prosecutor could not be issued. Police arrested him at his office in the Diyarbakır Bar Association on October 20, and brought him to Istanbul to testify before a prosecutor.

The prosecutor applied to court the same day to have him detained, pending completion of investigation. The court ordered Elçi’s release late that afternoon but banned him from traveling outside the country until the investigation is complete.

Elçi has worked since the early 1990s as a human rights lawyer in the southeastern towns of Cizre, his home town, and later in Diyarbakır, the largest city in region. He has worked extensively to represent families of victims of egregious human rights violations by the security forces, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings by suspected government agents.

Over many years, he has played a key role in representing victims of these crimes before the European Court of Human Rights against Turkey, and has worked closely with international human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

As head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association he has led fact-finding missions into the recent curfews imposed on cities and towns in southeast Turkey, including Cizre, Silvan, Bismil, and Diyarbakır, and documented human rights violations by the security forces against civilians.