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Civil Society on Trial in Turkey

Istanbul 10 Released, Terrorism Cases Against Human Rights Defenders Continue

They emerged from two minibuses in the early hours of the morning at the gates of Turkey’s Silivri prison complex – a rare moment of joy in Turkey’s unrelenting crackdown. For the so-called “Istanbul 10”, it marked the end of more than three months in pre-trial detention on trumped up terrorism-related charges.

Human rights defenders detained by police in Istanbul on July 5, 2017. From bottom left: Nalan Erkem; Nejat Taştan; İlknur Üstün, İdil Eser, Özlem Dalkıran, Günal Kurşun. © 2017 Bianet

The release of eight of the “Istanbul 10” human rights defenders, who had been in pre-trial detention, came after an Istanbul court ordered on October 25 that it should happen. While the court’s decision was welcome, all 10 continue to face bogus and politically-motivated charges of aiding terrorist organizations. Moreover, Amnesty Turkey chair and lawyer Taner Kılıç remains in prison on terrorism charges after a court merged his case with the Istanbul 10 and ruled against his release on October 26.

The Istanbul 10 charges stemmed from a routine gathering by these activists at a human rights workshop in July. Turkish authorities – prosecutors, top government officials, and the president – as well as the vast media machine they control, spun that innocent event into a vast conspiracy to unleash chaos in Turkey. Eight of the 10, including the director of Amnesty Turkey and defenders from Germany and Sweden, were remanded in custody.

Taner Kılıç is among the thousands in Turkey on trial for membership in a terrorist organization the government calls Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ), led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and held responsible for the 2016 failed coup. Kılıç is accused of having an encrypted communication application on his phone, which the government and courts allege was used by Gülen supporters. Kılıç’s legal team points to two reports by forensic experts showing the application had not been downloaded to his phone.

Like the Istanbul 10, Taner Kılıç has been the victim of a smear campaign by the media and politicians. Regularly running identical headlines, unsigned and strikingly similar stories, the evidence continues to support the allegation that Turkey’s pro-government media gets orders from above. Despite that, most newspapers yesterday reported the decision to release the Istanbul 10 from prison in neutral terms.

But the media has moved on to another target. Osman Kavala – a businessman and leading civil society figure known for his peace and reconciliation initiatives and support for the arts – has been in police custody since October 18. The EU, US State Department, and others have rightly raised serious concerns about his arrest. The front-page accusations in the media against him are all too familiar: terrorism, fomenting chaos in Turkey, contact with foreign agents, and coup plotting. The threat to civil society in Turkey may be increasing.

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