Turkey’s unabated march towards authoritarianism continues this week with the trial of 11 human rights workers there facing terrorism-related charges and up to 15 years in prison. Two of the defendants, Idil Eser and Taner Kilic, work for Amnesty International and are among the thousands who have been swept up in the crackdowns the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have instituted since the attempted coup against him July 2016.
Recent visa-related spat aside, President Donald Trump has been largely supportive of Erdogan and his policies. According to Erdogan, Trump even apologized for a May fight between his security staff and protesters in Washington, D.C. in which arrest warrants were issued for twelve members of Erdogan’s security team. (The White House denies that Trump issued an apology for the fight.)
Eser, director of Amnesty International (AI) in Turkey, was among the ten rights activists arrested in July in what Andrew Gardner, an Istanbul-based AI researcher, described as a “routine workshop.” Kilic, chair of AI’s Turkey operations, had already been arrested in June, accused of having ties with Erdogan’s opposition and bete noir, dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen. He’s also accused of downloading ByLock, an encrypted messaging app Turkish police have said was used by Gulenists to plan the coup, although according to their own records, the use of ByLock is not a basis for arrest.
AI has received a list of the evidence against Eser, Kilic, and the other arrested rights activists, and has rejected them — and the case — as “politically motivated” and based on “trumped up terrorism charges.” Indeed, the evidence presented by the state against the rights activists looks familiar to many who have found themselves in court in an authoritarian state: innocuous text messages between activists are interpreted as attempts to organize “secret” meetings; enrolling a child in a school associated with Gulenists is taken as support for Gulen; asking workshop participants to turn off their phones during the event is seen as an attempt to avoid police detection.
Wednesday’s court date, said Gardner, will be taken up by statements by the accused, who will hear the evidence summarized against them and future hearings might be scheduled to hear witness testimony. It’s unclear whether the 11 defendants will be held in pretrial custody.
In Kilic’s case, he’s accused not only of being part of the organized effort to run a secret meeting and being in contact with the other rights activists (the rights workshop), but also of using ByLock. But AI shared forensic reports with ThinkProgress showing that the app was never downloaded onto his phone. Kilic faces charges over the ByLock accusations in a separate hearing on Thursday. Turkish authorities also list AI documents published years before Eser even joined the organization as evidence against her.
“There’s not a shred of evidence, the charges are completely baseless,” said Gardner. “There’s nothing to link any of these individuals to terrorism, there’s no evidence to charge them under Turkish law. But unfortunately, this is the situation we’re in in Turkey.”
Indeed, the situation has been difficult for human rights organizations in Turkey for some time. “The situation got more difficult after the coup attempt, especially under the state of emergency, when certain NGOs have been closed down under emergency decree,” said Gardner.
“What’s significant about this case is that all these individuals, including some of Turkey’s best-known human rights defenders, were rounded up at a routine human rights seminar, which sends a message: ‘Any of you who are involved in these activities defending human rights, you can be detained and you can face similar charges, just for doing your everyday activity.’ So it’s not about just eleven people on trial, the target is human rights and civil society in Turkey, more generally,” said Gardner.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s called for the E.U. to cut proposed funding to Turkey because Erdogan was taking the country in “negative” direction in terms of rule of law.
The Turkish president responded in a speech in Ankara on Monday, claiming that Europe needs Turkey. “Those who believe that they can force us to our knees with sanctions will very soon realize that they are making a serious error,” he said. “Turkey is not dependent on Europe, in fact it is Europe that is dependent.”
Still, Garnder believes the E.U. and the United States could have a role in encouraging Erdogan to change course.
“Internationally, of course, some of Turkey’s most important allies, if you look at political and economic links, are with the European Union and the U.S. as well…and these countries have been conspicuously silent in the face of pretty obvious development towards and increasingly authoritarian government which is increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent,” said Gardner.
“It’s important for Turkey’s allies to bring up these issues…but issues such as common policy on ISIS, common policy on Syria, and, especially for the European governments, refugee policies has been a greater priority for them and has led them to ignore other important issues, including human rights in the country.”