The human cost of Turkey’s crackdown

Today, if all goes to plan, I will step through the imposing metal gates of Şakran high security prison in Turkey. And there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be.

I am in Turkey to attend tomorrow’s trial of our jailed Amnesty Turkey honorary chair, Taner Kılıç, in Istanbul. But before the hearing begins I have travelled to the seaside city of Izmir where I have been granted permission to visit Taner for the first time.

Today I will step through the gates of Şakran high security prison in Turkey. And there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be

Salil Shetty

Taner Kilic is an esteemed human rights lawyer who has spent his career fighting for the rights of refugees and other marginalized people. But in today’s Turkey this has made him a criminal.

It has been thirteen long months since the Turkish authorities first detained Taner on baseless charges of belonging to a terrorist group. His prolonged imprisonment on remand has sparked global condemnation and highlighted just how ruthless the Turkish authorities have become in targeting real or perceived critics.

Taner Kılıç has been charged with “membership of the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization”, the group that the government holds responsible for the July 2016 coup attempt. The charge is based on the false allegation that Taner downloaded ByLock, a messaging application the authorities say was used by followers of Fethullah Gülen. 

However, after more than a year the Turkish authorities have still not been able to provide any credible evidence to substantiate this allegation, or indeed to implicate Taner in any criminal wrongdoing.

A 15-page police report finally submitted by the police earlier this month fails to find any evidence Taner ever had ByLock on his phone. It reveals that forensic examinations were carried out and that ByLock does not appear on the list of items found on the phone, including deleted applications.

This corroborates the findings of four independent forensic reports previously submitted to the court that also showed that Taner never had Bylock.

The case against my colleague has always been absurd, but we won’t feel any comfort until Taner is actually free, given the present state of Turkey’s justice system, which seems to grow more arbitrary and capricious by the day.

I am in Turkey to attend tomorrow’s trial of our jailed Amnesty Turkey honorary chair, Taner Kılıç

Salil Shetty

Earlier this year, Taner did spend one night outside the bleak confines of Şakran. On the evening of 31 January, an Izmir court ordered Taner’s release and his family – his wife, Hatice, and their three daughters – rushed expectantly to the prison. They waited outside for hours, shivering with cold and excitement, but when the gates finally opened at midnight the car carrying Taner drove straight past them. That night Taner did not get to hug his daughters or hold his wife’s hand. Instead he was taken to a nearby detention facility, where he was detained overnight while the court considered an appeal the prosecution lodged against the earlier order for his release. The next day the court ruled in favour of that appeal and Taner was sent back to jail.

Taner’s plight is emblematic of the new wave of repression that is gripping Turkey. In the two years since the coup attempt, the government has launched a sustained assault on civil society, closing down more than 1,300 NGOs and 180 media organizatıons. Independent journalism has been all but obliterated. An astonishing 100,000 public service workers have been arbitrarily dismissed.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by these numbers, but speaking to Hatice I am able to glimpse the magnitude of the suffering wrought by this crackdown. Multiply these moments of sadness by tens of thousands, picture them playing out every day, and you have some sense of the human cost of what is happening in Turkey.

There are less visible victims too. A number of NGOs, which have been forced to close, provided a lifeline to marginalized people in Turkey, including refugees and asylum seekers, survivors of sexual and other gender-based violence, displaced people and children. Some of the most vulnerable people in society have fallen into the void left by the shutting down of these organizations. This is all compounded by restrictions on internet usage and people being afraid to take part in civil society activism, which have diminished the spaces where people can seek help and support. This climate of fear could have repercussions for years to come. Once the fear of speaking out takes root, it is very difficult to eradicate. In such dangerous times, we desperately need people like Taner.

Just under a year ago I made a similar trip to a different Turkish prison to visit another Amnesty colleague, Idil Eser, who spent four months in jail on terror charges after being arrested at a human rights workshop alongside 9 other human rights defenders. Idil was released in October but the trumped-up charges against her and the others still stand.

Taner’s plight is emblematic of the new wave of repression that is gripping Turkey

Salil Shetty

After leaving Şakran prison, I am hoping to meet with Hatice again. She is familiar with the grim protocol of entering Şakran prison. She has walked down the razor wire-rimmed path and endured searches by armed guards scores of times over the past year, and grown used to speaking to her husband Taner through a sheet of glass.

I hope that today will be the last time I visit one of my colleagues in a Turkish prison. I hope that the next time I see Taner he will be back in his office in Izmir, sorting through case work, chatting to his daughters on the phone.

If things don’t turn out this way, we at Amnesty International will double down our efforts to see our colleague freed. If we can show the courage and commitment that Taner himself would bring to a difficult case, then we’ll be on the right path.

This article first appeared here in Time Magazine.