Struggling to breathe under the weight of the crackdown

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s senior Turkey researcher, writes from the trial of Taner Kılıç, on the difficulties facing Turkey’s civil society.

 “I have met many thousands of dedicated people through my work, but none as remarkable and committed as Taner Kılıç,” says Michel Gaudé the former head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Turkey. And yet today, Taner Kılıç, is on trial on trumped up terrorism charges.”

If found guilty he faces up to 15 years behind bars.

A dedicated human rights lawyer and the chair of Amnesty International Turkey, I first met Taner in 2004. He was then, just as he is now, serious and determined but also lighthearted with a keen sense of humour. I liked him a lot but more than that I was deeply impressed by Taner’s tireless work to help refugees and asylum seekers who had very few people to turn to. He would fight for those who were detained or faced expulsion. He would negotiate with the local authorities and fight for them in court. He would organize human rights training for the local police and state officials. And he would mobilize and motivate local people to help improve the lives of these refugees. He was not only an effective advocate but also a passionate campaigner for refugees; a fantastic combination for a human rights defender.

With the post-coup crackdown becoming ever more entrenched, there is a need for people like Taner now more than ever. But as Taner’s situation demonstrates, in Turkey speaking out to defend other people’s freedoms can end up costing you your own.
Andrew Gardner, Senior Researcher

Taner was arrested almost eight months ago and charged with “membership of a terrorist organization.” The central accusation against him is the allegation that he downloaded ByLock, the messaging application the state says was used by the Gulen movement, who the Turkish authorities blame for the 2016 coup attempt.

After eight months, the state has not been able to provide any credible evidence to substantiate this claim, or indeed any legitimate claim of actual criminal wrongdoing. On the contrary, two independent forensic reports have found that there is no trace of ByLock ever being on his phone.

The ludicrous allegations against Taner aren’t unique. In fact there is a pattern of targeting human rights defenders. Businessman, philanthropist and civil society leader Osman Kavala was detained in October. Nothing has been presented to substantiate the lurid allegation, splashed across government newspapers, that he participated in the coup-attempt.

As a result of his civil society activism, teacher and president of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association, Raci Bilici, stands accused of membership of the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party or (PKK) which the government classifies as a terrorist organization.

The picture is clear. If you are effective, if you are a thorn in the side of those bothered by human rights activism, then you will pay the price. Targeting prominent individuals serves to scare, and to silence the communities they represent.

Last month in a dramatic development, Turkish authorities admitted that they were wrong, and that thousands of people have been wrongly accused of downloading ByLock. They published lists containing the numbers of 11,480 mobile phone users exonerating them of the alleged wrongdoing, which in turn led to mass prisoner releases. Unfortunately, Taner is not yet among those listed for release. The injustice of Taner’s detention is clear and documented. And yet his trial continues.

Nevertheless, the fact that the authorities have acknowledged that thousands of people were wrongly jailed due to incorrect information about ByLock being on their phones, has given hope to those fighting for Taner’s release. And there are many of us. Indeed over the last eight months, more than a million people from 194 countries and territories have signed Amnesty International actions calling for Taner’s release and for the dropping of the charges against the ten other human rights defenders who he are being tried alongside. Included in this list are scores of politicians as well as world renowned figures who work in the arts. They know that if Turkey’s once vibrant civil society is to be able to breathe again, then the likes of Taner must be freed.

“I feel like I’m living in a bad dream and I’m waiting to wake up,” Gulnihal Kılıç, Taner’s daughter told me at the last hearing. Seeing her father in his prison cell via video link today will be hard for Gulnihal. But she is also immensely proud of him and so am I. I’m proud of the work he has done to transform the lives of so many. I’m proud of his determination to stand up for what is right. But most of all, I’m proud to call him a friend.