Who will defend the defenders?

By Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

 

Some moments in life are forever etched in our minds. Everyone recalls where they were when they heard their favourite rock star died, or how they felt around the birth of a child. For me, 6 June and 5 July 2017 are two dates that will forever be on my mind. They are the days when I learned that my friends and colleagues, human rights defenders, had been detained by Turkish police.

Eleven human rights activists had been arrested. My friend and sister Ozlem was among them
Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

On 6 June 2017, I was in Istanbul on a work visit, meeting with journalists and lawyers ahead of the start of the trial of two writers. It had almost been a year since the attempted and bloody military coup of July 2016. The Turkish government had responded with a sweeping crackdown on dissenters from all backgrounds, which was continuing to gather pace. I was with the editor of a small newspaper when I heard that my colleague Taner Kılıç had been detained. I will never forget the sinking feeling during those first moments. Trying to make sense of the nonsensical is always difficult. Knowing about the crackdown had not prepared me for how I’d feel when someone I knew was caught up in it. 

How could this be happening to Taner, a softly spoken, gentle lawyer from Izmir, who had been our Turkey chair since 2014 and with Amnesty since its beginnings in Turkey? It was impossible to reconcile the Taner we knew with the person that pro government newspapers were portraying him as – headlines screamed about the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization. During those first few days, none of us who knew Taner could have imagined that he would be sent to prison and remain there for more than 14 months. Surely this was a terrible mistake that would be rectified at the earliest opportunity. We didn’t know that things were about to get worse.

It was around 8pm on 5 July when I saw several missed calls from a colleague in Turkey. When I rang back, I learned that Amnesty’s Director in Turkey, Idil Eser, and nine others were in detention after being arrested  while attending a workshop on the island of Buyukada. My friend and sister Ozlem was among them. I recall vividly the ensuing hours, making frantic calls to whoever I could think of to try and find out where they were and what was going on. How could people be arrested for attending a human rights workshop? It made no sense.

Surely this was a terrible mistake that would be rectified at the earliest opportunity. We didn’t know that things were about to get worse
Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

In the days and weeks that followed, the Turkish media continued to run inflammatory headlines about our friends, publishing snippets of discussions allegedly overheard from the workshop, which was presented as a ‘secret meeting to plan an overthrow of the government’…. All this in a hotel, in a glass room, with the door opening onto the hotel’s swimming pool! It made no sense. Two and a half years on, it still doesn’t.

This week, I will be in Istanbul for the verdict in the case of Taner and the Buyukada 10. If found guilty of ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’, they could face up to 15 years behind bars.

At the last hearing in November, I was in the courtroom when the state prosecutor requested that Taner and five of the Buyukada 10 - Idil, Ozlem, Gunal, Nejat and Veli - be convicted, and recited those initial absurd allegations that had been destroyed under the weight of the evidence their defence had provided. This included the allegation that Taner had the secure messaging app ByLock on his phone. Since the coup attempt the authorities have used this allegation against tens of thousands of people to try to prove they were part of an armed terrorist organization. In Taner’s case it was proven to be baseless, including by the state’s own reports to the court.

In fact, after 10 hearings in the case, all the accusations made against them have been shown, one by one, to be entirely baseless. How is it possible that the state is still asking for the convictions of our colleagues and friends?

The situation facing them is not unique. Their situation is in many ways emblematic of the wave of repression that has gripped Turkey. On Tuesday, another landmark verdict is expected in the case of Osman Kavala and 15 others accused of conspiring to overthrow the government. Despite failing to produce a shred of evidence to support their claim, the prosecution has nevertheless sought life prison for them.

The absurdity of the prosecution and the complete lack of evidence of any crime having been committed was like something from the pages of a nightmarish novel
Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

I have been in that courtroom for this trial ever since it began. Each time, the absurdity of the prosecution and the complete lack of evidence of any crime having been committed - let alone under terrorism laws - struck everyone in attendance as reserved to the pages of a nightmarish novel.

When I walk into the Istanbul courtroom next week, I know there is only one outcome that could deliver justice.  Taner, Ozlem, Idil, Nala. Seyhmus, Ilknur, Ali, Peter, Veli, Gunal and Nejat must all be acquitted. For defenders of human rights, for our friends, for human rights in Turkey, this is the only way just end to this long saga.