Will defending human rights in Turkey cost our colleagues their freedom?

By Markus Beeko, Secretary General of Amnesty International Germany

 

The Turkish government is trying to woo German tourists during this corona crisis, presenting Turkey as a ‘safe country’ – all while Amnesty International Turkey’s honorary chair Taner Kilic is in the dock together with the German human rights trainer Peter Steudtner, the former director of Amnesty International Turkey Idil Eser and eight other human rights defenders.

A verdict in their trial is expected to be reached in Turkey on Friday 3 July 2020. A conviction would be an alarming sign not only for Turkish civil society and human rights defenders worldwide but also in relation to Turkey’s handling of the protection of international human rights.

A verdict is expected tomorrow in the cases of 11 human rights defenders who have spent nearly three years fighting trumped-up charges

While the Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu is going around touting how safe Turkey is for tourists, it is obvious that anyone who campaigns for human rights in Turkey is living very dangerously.

My colleague Taner Kilic experienced this at first hand in June 2017 when he was arrested under absurd ‘terrorism’ allegations. He, who advocated for the rights of others as a lawyer and former chair of Amnesty International Turkey, was suddenly the one in need of assistance.

Now, a little over three years later, the verdict in the trial against Taner Kilic and ten other human rights defenders is finally expected to be announced in Istanbul on 3 July 2020. The German human rights trainer Peter Steudtner is also among those accused.

He, and seven other defendants, had already been unjustly detained for around four months, with Taner Kilic himself held in custody for over 400 days. The detention of human rights defenders provoked an international outcry which was instrumental in getting them released from prison.

If found guilty, they could face up to 15 years behind bars

But even though they are now no longer in custody, the eleven human rights defenders are still not free. Next Friday they face the prospect of spending 15 years in jail if found guilty, despite the fact that all the alleged evidence provided by the Turkish authorities has been comprehensively demolished over the course of ten hearings. The accused are standing trial solely for their peaceful activism for human rights. Indeed, an acquittal of all charges against all eleven would be the only fair verdict.

 

The Turkish judiciary is being exploited to intimidate and silence civil society, so it is impossible to predict what the court will decide. Indeed, in his closing plea in November 2019 the public prosecutor continued to call for long prison sentences for six of the defendants, including Taner Kilic.

If the defendants are convicted on 3 July, this would be another alarming sign for the oppressed civil society. And further still, the ruling will have an impact far beyond the courtroom. This process exemplifies the arbitrariness of the Turkish judiciary and the government’s systematic attack on critical voices, where ‘terrorism’ allegations are routinely made in Turkey to punish criticism of the government.

 

In the COVID-19 crisis the extent of the Turkish authorities’ arbitrariness can be seen once again, with journalists, doctors and social media users being arrested and charged because of their comments about the coronavirus pandemic. While around 90,000 detainees have been released from custody for a short period owing to the poor hygiene standards in overcrowded Turkish prisons, human rights defenders, opposition figures and journalists are expressly excluded from consideration.

Political prisoners such as the philanthropist Osman Kavala and the journalist Ahmet Altan still remain unjustly incarcerated in prisons where there have already been numerous coronavirus outbreaks. A face-saving opportunity to release political prisoners truly has been wasted here.

While the persecution of critical voices now seems routine in Turkey – with more media representatives in custody here than any other country – we cannot just become immune to news about accused human rights defenders, detained journalists and arrested opposition figures. We must not sit back while Amnesty representatives, journalists, philanthropists such as Osman Kavala and thousands of others, who have all done nothing wrong, are in the dock – or even languishing in jail.

Following the arrest of the eleven human rights defenders in summer 2017, it was only international pressure that helped secure their release. This attention is needed again now that the verdict is imminent.

In the corona crisis, Turkey wants to prove that it is a ‘safe country’ for German tourists and is calling for the travel advisory to be lifted. The German government can and should now take this as an opportunity to demand that Amnesty representatives and lawyers be able to live and work safely in Turkey – without fear of arbitrary arrests and fabricated criminal proceedings.

While the persecution of critical voices is routine in Turkey, we cannot just become immune to news that human rights defenders are treated this way

The German government should push for the acquittal of all eleven human rights defenders. Indeed, political action is needed for the many other politically motivated proceedings in Turkey – even if no German citizens are affected.

While the severity of the human rights situation in Turkey is clear, it is unclear just how serious the German government, the German economy and each one of us is about not turning a blind eye to these human rights abuses. Do we stand shoulder to shoulder with innocent people who are being persecuted or do we side with Recep Tayyip Erdogan who thinks that the rule of law and human rights are simply up for negotiation?

In the case of Turkey, neither economic interests nor the EU-Turkey deal ought to lead to systematic human rights abuses being accepted without challenge.

The German government must make it absolutely crystal clear that the normalisation and deepening of relations with Turkey depends on human rights being upheld. After all, nobody is safe anywhere without human rights.

This article was first published by Die Welt here.