Who will defend the defenders?

By Salil Shetty is Secretary General of Amnesty International

It is no coincidence that as human rights violations in a country increase, so do the attacks on those people who defend them. It is also no coincidence that in times of greater repression, the job of human rights activists becomes more vital than ever: more vital and more dangerous.

Sadly, my colleagues İdil Eser and Taner Kılıç, the director and chair of Amnesty International Turkey, have come to be all too aware of the fact that speaking out to defend other people’s freedoms can end up costing you your own. They both have spent months behind bars after being arrested alongside 9 other human rights activists on absurd terror charges. Today their trial begins in Istanbul. If convicted they could face jail terms of up to 15 years.

In times of greater repression, the job of human rights activists becomes more vital than ever: more vital and more dangerous.
Salil Shetty, Amnesty International

Some may argue that becoming a target comes with the territory but we refuse to accept this. For more than five decades, Amnesty International has fought for human rights in Turkey. Some of the country’s best known figures – from poets to presidents – have at one time or another been classified as Amnesty Prisoners of Conscience and benefited from the fruits of our campaigning. The irony is therefore not lost that Amnesty’s Turkey chair and director, are now face becoming Prisoners of Conscience themselves.

But people are speaking out. As Edward Snowden told me when I met him in Moscow earlier this month, “When it was a hard thing to do, Amnesty stood up for me. Now it’s time for us to stand up for them.”

Whilst Taner Kılıç was arrested at his home in Izmir, the choreography of the other arrests could have been lifted from a Hollywood movie script. On 5 July, 8 prominent Turkish human rights activists were gathered on a small island near Istanbul for a routine training workshop. Their trainers, Peter Steudtner from Germany and Ali Gharavi from Sweden, were teaching them about well-being and digital security. After a relaxed breakfast they had regrouped in the breezy glass-sided meeting room when suddenly Turkish security forces stormed in. The 10 activists were bundled away, locked in a police station, interrogated, and ultimately imprisoned.

The choreography of the arrests of the Istanbul 10 could have been lifted from a Hollywood movie script
Salil Shetty, Amnesty International

Earlier this month an indictment was filed charging them with membership of an “armed terrorist organization”. Taner Kılıç, who had been arrested a month earlier on separate baseless charges, was also included in this indictment on the grounds that he was aware that the workshop was going to take place. He also faces additional charges, the first hearing for which begins tomorrow.

The prosecution alleges that the workshop had been a “secret meeting to organize a Gezi-type uprising” in order to foment “chaos” in the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. For a start, it was anything but secret. Indeed one of the participants, Nalan Erkem, had even posted a photo of the hotel on her Instagram account. “Where are you staying?” asks a friend beneath the photo. “At the Ascot Hotel” replies Nalan. 

The prosecution’s outlandish claims suggest that standard activities carried out by these human rights defenders amount to “assisting terrorist organizations”. İdil Eser is linked by the prosecutor to three unrelated and opposing organizations characterized by the authorities as being involved in terrorism-related activities. The case against her includes allegations that a letter was sent by Amnesty International to the South Korean Embassy in Turkey asking them to end the sale of teargas canisters to Turkey following the Gezi Park protests. This is the type of bread-and-butter work a human rights organisation like Amnesty International does and what’s more, this letter was sent before İdil had even joined the organisation.

 

Taner Kılıç is accused of downloading and using a phone messaging application called Bylock, allegedly used by the Gülen movement to communicate. However, two independent forensic analyses of Taner’s phone commissioned by Amnesty International found that there is no trace that Bylock was ever on his phone.

İlknur Üstün, a women’s rights activist, is accused of requesting funding from “an embassy” to support a project on “gender equality, participation in policy making and reporting.” She wrote about these charges from prison saying: “If this is a crime…we’ll continue to commit it.” And this brings us to the crux of their arrests.

Some of Turkey's country’s best known figures – from poets to presidents – have at one time or another been classified as Amnesty Prisoners of Conscience
Salil Shetty, Amnesty International

Sixteen months after the failed coup attempt the post-coup crackdown shows no sign of abating. The prisons are full, the courthouses busy and fear has become the new norm. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned, media houses shut down and Turkey has now become the world’s largest jailer of journalists. More than 100,000 civil servants have been dismissed under state of emergency decrees and, tainted as ‘terrorists’, many are no longer able to continue in their careers. Last week the renewal of Turkey’s state of emergency for the fifth time passed largely unnoticed. And yet in this febrile atmosphere, a few people are bravely speaking out and trying to stem the rapidly creeping tide of repression.

While the Turkish government has the duty to ensure security, protect its population, and prosecute those responsible for violent attacks, individuals should only be detained and investigated where there is sufficient evidence against them. In Turkey the act of defending human rights is itself becoming a crime. Criminalising their activities not only impacts those who the Turkish authorities are attempting to silence, but by the groups they support and by everyone who values the importance of justice and equal society.

We are responsible not only for what we say but what we fail to say by staying silent
Aziz Nesin, Turkish poet

Today the eyes of the world will be on the Istanbul central court for what is an acid test for the Turkish justice system. I am grateful to Edward Snowden and all the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have raised their voices against this injustice. But we need to do more. We can stay silent no longer while injustices are committed in plain sight. In the words of Turkish writer, Aziz Nesin, an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience in 1964: “We are responsible not only for what we say but what we fail to say by staying silent."

This article was first published here by the Washington Post