Countdown to justice in Turkey

On 3 July 2020 – three years after they were first detained – 11 human rights activists will hear a court’s verdict on charges which could result in jail terms of up to 15 years. One fundamental truth is beyond any doubt: they have done nothing wrong.

What have they done?

They have done nothing wrong. They stood up for human rights in Turkey. 

The 11 – that includes the former chair, ex-director and several members of Amnesty Turkey as well as women’s and equality advocates – face absurd ‘terrorism’ charges without any credible evidence being presented over the course of ten hearings.

Since their detention in 2017, more than two million people around the world – from Ai Wei Wei to Whoopi Goldberg – have spoken out for justice for the 11 rights defenders. Now as this unfair trial is coming to a close, we are asking you to join us in adding your voice and send a message of solidarity to the 11 activists ahead of the verdict.

After all, when people who defend our rights are silenced, we are all at risk.

When were they arrested and what are they accused of?

Taner Kılıç, then chair of Amnesty Turkey, was arrested at his home in Izmir in the early hours of 6 June 2017. Three days later he was remanded in prison custody on charges of being a member of what the government call the “Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization” that they accuse being the masterminds of the 2016 violent coup attempt. Without any evidence, the authorities claimed that Taner had downloaded “ByLock”, a secure messaging application the government says was used by the group to communicate.

Nearly a month later, on 5 July, ten human rights defenders (the ‘Istanbul 10’) were detained from a hotel on the island of Büyükada in Istanbul where they were taking part in a workshop on wellbeing and digital security. The authorities accused them of taking part in a secret meeting. Eight of the ten defenders were remanded in prison on the basis of these allegations.

İdil Eser, Günal Kurşun, Özlem Dalkıran, Veli Acu, Ali Gharavi, Peter Steudtner, Nalan Erkem and İlknur Üstün spent 99 days in pre-trial detention before they were released on bail at the first hearing in the case on 25 October 2017 in Istanbul.

The court also requested that Taner’s prosecution be transferred to Istanbul and be merged with that of the Istanbul 10, alleging that Taner had directed the “secret Büyükada meeting” even though he had been in prison at the time it took place.  At Taner’s first hearing in Izmir which took place the next day on 26 October, the court accepted the Istanbul court’s request for the transfer, merging the two separate prosecutions into one single case in Istanbul. The court also ruled to continue Taner’s pre-trial detention. The case has since been dubbed the ‘Büyükada trial’.

The prosecutor added information and documents found on computers seized from the Istanbul 10 showing the legitimate human rights activism. These included: a campaign to stop the sale of tear gas to Turkey along with other Amnesty International documents, making a grant application for a human rights project, and campaigning for the release from detention of hunger-striking teachers.

Amnesty International has compiled a detailed analysis of the indictment, addressing each of the allegations made against the 11 defendants. Learn more about the defendants here.

Latest hearing

At the ninth hearing in November 2019, the state prosecutor presented his final opinion requesting convictions against Taner Kılıç for “membership of a terrorist organization”, Idil Eser, Özlem Dalkıran, Günal Kurşun, Veli Acu and Nejat Taştan for “knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organization”. He requested that the court acquits Nalan Erkem, İlknur Üstün, Şeyhmus Özbekli, Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner.

The prosecutor’s summing up reads like a copy of the indictment reproducing the baseless allegations – that were proven to be false throughout the various hearings – as if the whole trial had not taken place.

We expected a verdict at the following hearing on 19 February, but the defence statements could not be concluded in the time provided by the court. The trial was first postponed until 3 April 2020, and now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, until 3 July 2020 when the verdict is expected.

What is likely to happen next, at the final hearing?

During the course of the trial, the state prosecution did not prove its case against the 11 human rights defenders. For justice to be done, all 11 must be acquitted. They should never have been investigated, let alone imprisoned or prosecuted.

On 3 July 2020, the court may decide to ignore the prosecutor’s request for convictions and acquit all. Equally, the prosecutor’s request for five of the defenders to be acquitted is also no guarantee they will be acquitted. All 11 remain at risk of conviction and imprisonment.

If any of the 11 human rights defenders are convicted, even if they don’t go back to prison because of the time spend in pre-trial detention, this would be a huge blow to the individuals, and to independent civil society in Turkey.

Four of the 11 defenders are lawyers. Should they be convicted, and their convictions confirmed on appeal, they would lose their licence and would no longer be able to practice law.

Whatever the verdict, it is likely to be appealed and risks will continue until all of them are acquitted by the appeal court, which may issue a judgment years after the first instance court’s decision.

Sample tweets:

Almost three years on there is still no evidence of any wrongdoing by the 11 HRDs in the Büyükada trial. They must be acquitted without further delay. #FreeRightsDefenders

The 11 HRDs facing outrageous charges despite having done nothing wrong. We won’t stop saying #FreeRightsDefenders until they’re acquitted and prosecutions of all those defending human rights are stopped.

Standing in solidarity with human rights defenders

The case has echoed across the world, with international support pouring in for the 11 human rights defenders. Over 2,000,000 people signed the petition for their release from prison and for the absurd charges against them to be dropped.

Governments, institutions and political representatives from around the world as well as numerous artists and celebrities including Zoë Kravitz, Ben Stiller, Mark Ruffalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Zach Galifianakis, Annie Lennox, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Juliette Binoche, Jane Birkin, Angélique Kidjo, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Catherine Deneuve and Ai Weiwei appealed for the release of the defenders when they were held in pre-trial detention, and called for the absurd charges to be dropped.