Truth and justice have become strangers in Turkey

By Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

In a scene that could have been lifted from a Hollywood thriller, dozens of police raid a hotel on a picturesque island near Istanbul, seize computers and phones and bundle 10 people into a van.

They – and another man arrested earlier –  are arrested and are charged with ‘terrorism’ offences.

But these 11 have committed no crime. They are prominent human rights activists and include my colleagues İdil Eser and Taner Kılıç who, at that time, were the director and chair of Amnesty International Turkey.

That was back in the summer of 2017.

On Wednesday, after many months in jail and two-and-a-half years before the courts, a judge will pronounce a verdict. If convicted, they face jail terms of up to 15 years.

In a scene that could have been lifted from a Hollywood thriller, dozens of police raid a hotel seize computers and phones and bundle 10 people into a van
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

The prosecution alleges that the gathering in the hotel where they were arrested had been a “secret meeting to organize a Gezi-type uprising” in order to foment “chaos” in the country. In reality, it was a human rights workshop and it was anything but secret. Indeed, one of the participants had even posted a photo of the hotel on her Instagram account. “Where are you staying?” a friend posted beneath the photo. “At the Ascot Hotel” she replied below. 

And yet, it is no coincidence that when human rights are undermined in a country, the people who defend them come under attack. At times of greater repression, the job of human rights activists becomes more vital: and also more dangerous.

The activists in the dock this week, were aware of the risks. They had seen how standing up for human rights was being increasingly criminalized. And they knew that defending other people’s freedoms in Turkey could ultimately cost them their own.

From the moment they were charged back in 2017, it was clear that this was a prosecution aimed at silencing them and sending a powerful message to the rest of civil society: we can silence you too.

And so their ordeal began.

When human rights are undermined in a country, the people who defend them come under attack. At times of greater repression, the job of human rights activists becomes more vital: and also more dangerous
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

Over the course of 10 trial hearings, every aspect of the prosecutor’s case against them was been comprehensively disproven. The ‘terrorism’ allegations have been repeatedly and categorically refuted, including by the state’s own evidence. The prosecution’s attempt to present legitimate human rights activities as unlawful acts has failed absymally. And yet, despite the absence of credible evidence to substantiate the absurd charges, the judicial farce has continued.

The eleven are not alone. Indeed, the situation is emblematic of the wave of repression that has gripped Turkey for more than three years. On Tuesday, another landmark verdict is expected in the case of prominent civil society figure Osman Kavala and 15 others accused of conspiring to overthrow the government. Kavala has already spent almost 28 months in prison on pre-trial detention.

Despite failing to produce a shred of evidence to support their claim, the prosecution has nevertheless sought life imprisonment for three of the 16, including Osman Kavala. Even the European Court of Human Rights ruling that he must be released immediately in December has not been enough to secure his freedom.

It has been almost four years since the failed coup attempt, and the crackdown that followed it shows no sign of abating. Turkey’s prisons are full, the courthouses flooded with cases and fear has become the new norm. The government has launched a sustained assault on civil society, closing down more than 1,300 non-governmental organizations and 180 media outlets. Independent journalism has been all but obliterated. An astonishing 130,000 public service workers have been arbitrarily dismissed.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by these numbers, but the experiences of these 11 human rights defenders offers a glimpse into the magnitude of the suffering wrought by this crackdown. Taner Kılıç spent more than 14 months in prison before his release on bail, and eight of the other defendants were jailed for almost four months each. For the last two-and-a-half years the threat of lengthy prison sentences  has hung over all of them.

When it was a hard thing to do, Amnesty stood up for me. Now it’s time for us to stand up for them
Edward Snowden, activist, author and whistleblower

One thing that has given them strength is the support that they have received from around the world. More than two million people have joined the call for justice for the 11, including politicians and renowned actors (Ben Stiller, Whoopi Goldberg, Catherine Deneuve, etc.), musicians (Sting, Peter Gabriel, Angélique Kidjo, Annie Lennox, etc.) and artists (Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, etc.). “When it was a hard thing to do, Amnesty stood up for me. Now it’s time for us to stand up for them,” said US whistleblower Edward Snowden in a message for Taner, İdil and their co-defendants recorded in 2017.

Next week the eyes of the world will be on the Istanbul central court for what is an acid test for the Turkish justice system. It is hoped that this prolonged saga of injustice will be ended with the acquittal of the 11 human rights defenders. But in Turkey, where truth and justice have become strangers, we will have to wait and see.