Turkey holds six rights activists on charges of aiding terror group

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Amnesty International urges Theresa May to speak out about Turkey’s slide into 
authoritarian rule over case described as ‘travesty of justice’
Amnesty International urged the British government to end its silence over Turkey’s slide into authoritarian rule on Tuesday after its local director and five other activists were remanded in custody on accusations of belonging to a terrorist organisation. It is possible the six will now be held in jail for as long as two years before their full trial comes to court.

Idil Eser, local director of the London-based organisation, was one of a group of activists including a German and a Swedish national detained on 5 July while attending a routine workshop on digital security and information management near Istanbul.

Turkey’s state prosecutor had asked the court on Monday to remand all 10 in custody pending trial on charges of membership of a terrorist organisation. Six were retained in jail to give the prosecution time to assemble full charges. Four others were released.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International director of Europe and central Asia, said: “Too many western governments have been locked in a fatal embrace with the Turkish government at the moment it slides into an authoritarian direction. Everyone knows this is happening in Turkey, and it needs to be said. These arrests represent a red line, and must be the moment when the terms of engagement with Turkey are reset.”

Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty UK, said: “We are grateful for the work the British government have done behind the scenes. But a moment of truth has arrived. It should stand up in public to say this is an abuse that will not be tolerated.”

Dalhuisen said the charges, including membership of a terrorist organisation, were absurd since the director was being accused of being a member of three diametrically opposed terrorist organisations. He said the meeting at which the group had been initially arrested concerned the most mundane issues of digital security training and working in an hostile environment. The first day’s course included a yoga session, he said.

Dalhuisen said: “This case is taking place in front of a hounding by the media and an entirely compliant prosecutor and judicial system. These arrests are an attack on Turkish civil society and this is now obvious to all of Turkey’s international partners.”

Privately, Theresa May, leading a country that has strived to remain close to the Turkish regime after the failed coup last year, raised the arrests at a recent meeting with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the G20 meeting in Hamburg a fortnight ago.

The British Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan said he was very concerned by the arrests. “We continue to urge the Turkish authorities to uphold international standards with regard to the rule of law, including the presumption of innocence, and to protect fundamental rights including freedom of expression and assembly,” he said.

But many western countries are heavily dependent on Turkish security cooperation over the return of jihadist foreign fighters from Syria, and do not want to risk jeopardising this priority. The west also recognises the slowdown in mainly Syrian refugees into Europe is dependent on a deal struck with Erdoğan two years ago.

Amnesty indicated that it may now take four to six months for the next phase of the judicial hearing to occur, with a further six to 12 months for the trial itself to be brought to court. The remand can also be challenged once a month, but the charges are so vague, and wide-ranging that it is more likely international political pressure will lead to their release, as opposed to evidence in a court of law.

The detention of 10 activists is part of a wider crackdown following last July’s failed coup attempt. As many as 200,000 public servants have lost their jobs, creating a climate of fear. Erdoğan also retains strong popular support bolstered by an enthusiastic media.

The six human rights defenders remanded in custody detained are İdil Eser (Amnesty International), Günal Kurşun (Human Rights Agenda Association), Özlem Dalkıran (Citizens’ Assembly), Veli Acu (Human Rights Agenda Association), Ali Gharavi (a Swedish IT strategy consultant) and Peter Steudtner (non-violence and wellbeing trainer). Steudtner is a German citizen, and his partner Magdalena Freudenschuss said on Monday: “These charges are totally absurd. They are almost the opposite of what Peter and Ali and the other human rights defenders stand for with their work: for non-violence, for human rights.”

Martin Schulz, the SDP candidate for the chancellorship, said: “The limit of what one could tolerate has been exceeded. You cannot be silent. Even the government of our country is not. What is going on in Turkey is unbearable and crosses all borders. Mr Erdoğan is about to dismantle the rule of law.”

The leader of the German Greens, Cem Özdemir, said Turkey’s arrests were likely to damage its economy. “You have to make it clear to Ankara that they endanger the branch they are sitting on,” he said, pointing out Turkey is dependent on good economic relations with the EU. “I do not see how you can invest safely in this country. There is no legal certainty in Turkey for anyone.”

A total of 22 Germans, including prominent journalists, have been arrested since the coup, possibly reflecting regime anger at the way in which Turkish ministers were not allowed to speak in Germany during the referendum campaign to give Erdoğan new powers.

Deniz Yücel, a dual German-Turkish citizen and journalist for Die Welt, was arrested on 27 February on charges of propaganda in support of a terrorist organisation and inciting public violence, after first being detained on 14 February. He faces up to 10.5 years in jail if convicted.

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