Four human rights activists given prison sentences in Büyükada case

(Updates with details, reactions and background)

Four human rights defenders who spent over three years fighting terrorism charges were sentenced to time in prison by a Turkish court on Friday, in what activists called a “sham trial”.

Eleven activists, including the honorary chair and former director of Turkey’s Amnesty International branch, Taner Kılıç and İdil Eser, respectively, were accused of plotting a coup in a 2017 workshop on digital security at a hotel on Büyükada, the largest of Istanbul’s Princes’ islands.

The 35th High Criminal Court in Istanbul sentenced Kılıç to six years and three months in prison for alleged “membership of a terrorist organisation”, while Eser and two other activists, Özlem Dalkıran and Günal Kurşun, received two years and one month each for “aiding a terrorist organisation”, T24 reported.

The court acquitted the remaining defendants: Veli Acu, Nalan Erkem, Ali Gharavi, Şeyhmus Özbekli, Peter Steudtner, Nejat Taştan and İlknur Üstün.

In November, the prosecutor had requested for the activists convicted on Friday, as well as Acu and Taştan, to be sentenced up to 15 years in prison.

The presiding judge chose to not allow relatives and observers to witness the trial, citing the small size of the courtroom the trial took place in.

Eight of the eleven defendants, including two foreign nationals, spent 113 days in jail before being released on bail, while Kılıç was released after 14 months on charges of membership of the Gülen movement, which Turkey designates as a terrorist organisation and accuses of orchestrating a coup attempt in 2016.

The main evidence against Kılıç was his use of an encrypted messaging app called ByLock that Turkish authorities believed was used almost exclusively by supporters of exile Muslim cleric Fetullah Gülen. In the crackdown that followed the 2016 coup, many people were detained after they were found with ByLock on their phones.

Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner called Friday’s verdict for the Büyükada case “disgraceful”.

“We will not let this outrage stand” Gardner said on Twitter.

Turkey Director for Human Rights Watch Emma Sinclair-Webb called the three-year legal process against the 11 activists was “a sham”.

“No evidence, a sham process from start to finish. Appeal to come,” Sinclair-Webb tweeted.

Howard Eissenstat, a non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said he was “stunned” by the trial’s outcome, and expected acquittals for all the defendants.

“I'm actually stunned by this. It was a sham trial from start to finish, but I assumed that it would end in eventual acquittal,” Eissenstat said.

“Shameful. Horrifying. And another indicator that Turkey will get worse before it gets better.”