Turkish human rights activists charged with spying freed on bail

Eight human Turkish rights defenders have been freed on bail after spending 113 days in detention. They were among 10 people arrested in a police raid on a meeting on the island of Büyükada, off Istanbul, and were charged with spying and terrorism offences.  Two of the 10, Nejat Taştan and Şeyhmus Özbekli, were earlier released on bail by the court.

In June, Amnesty's Turkey chairperson, Taner Kılıç, was added to the case on charges of "membership of a terrorist organisation". The main evidence against Kılıç was his use of an encrypted chat app called ByLock that Turkish authorities claim was primarily used by supporters of exile Muslim cleric Fetullah Gülen, the man Turkey blames for masterminding last year's failed coup.

The weeks spent in custody were hard on Ali Ghrawi, Günal Kurşun, İdil Eser, İlknur Üstün, Nalan Erkem, Özlem Dalkıran, Peter Steudtner and Veli Acu. Pro-government media accused them of being agents provocateurs and labelled them "spies and terrorists" plotting to "topple Turkish government". Those who had health problems were denied access to treatment.

Relatives, friends, journalists and international observers waited outside the 14th Criminal Court, then struggled to get one of the few seats inside the tiny courtroom. As usual, most of the rows reserved for the public were occupied by security personnel, this time plainclothes officers were also placed among the gallery.

From the start, the judge made it clear he intended to bring proceedings to a swift end. The first defence statement was made by Citizen Assembly's Özlem Dalkıran. She asked asked how an open-door meeting next to a hotel pool could be seen as a "secret meeting". But the judge focused on who financed the meeting. According to bank statements, Peter Steudtner, a German human rights activist, transferred 5,000 euros to Dalkıran, pointing perhaps to an international conspiracy.

Citizen Assembly's Özlem Dalkıran hugs colleagues after her release.
Citizen Assembly's Özlem Dalkıran hugs colleagues after her release from prison on 26 October 2017.

The judge questioned Dalkıran's attorneys further, but the money was too little to be seen as a full-blown conspiracy. As it turned out, it was nothing more than one human rights activist helping another in a time of need. Seeing that the money trail was not bearing much fruit, the judge stopped his line of questioning.

There followed tension and debate about the short lengths of breaks awarded by the judge and the prison food served to the defendants, all adding to the tension in the courtroom.

There were heated arguments between the judge and the defence lawyers. The judge threatened to kick the public of the court and insisted the defendants keep their statements shorter. Squeezing the defence statements of 11 people into a one-day hearing was, defence lawyers argued, in itself a violation of their right to a fair defence.  Many of the main points of the defence statements were missed, they said. The translators provided for Ghrawi and Stedtner also made many mistakes and were corrected by the public gallery on a number of occasions.

Activists Ali Ghrawi and Peter Steudtner speak to the press after their release from Silivri high-security prison.
Activists Ali Ghrawi and Peter Steudtner speak to the press after their release from Silivri high-security prison, 26 October 2017.

At around 9pm, the prosecutor demanded all but one of the defendants - Human Rights Agenda's Veli Acu - be released. The only possible explanation was that there was a banned Kurdish book on Acu's phone.

Despite the prosecutor's demand to free the defendants, their lawyers persisted with their drawn out final statements. This took so long that some observers feared the judge might change his mind.

Half-an-hour before midnight, the attorneys were summoned to the courtroom and the long-awaited news arrived: Release on bail for all.

Activist Peter Steudtner of Germany hugs a colleague after his release from prison in Istanbul on October 26, 2017. Eight human rights activists, including Amnesty International's Turkey director Idil Eser, were greeted by celebrating relatives and supporters as they were released from jail near Istanbul early on October 26.
Activist Peter Steudtner (R) of Germany hugs a colleague after his release from Silivri prison in Istanbul on October 26, 2017.

The good news brought cheer to the crowd waiting outside the courtroom.

The families of the defendants left the courthouse with a few journalists to pick up their loved ones from Silivri high-security prison, some 90km away from Istanbul.

What the trial showed was that accusations against human rights defenders of being members of armed leftist, Kurdish or Islamist groups could not survive beyond the first hearing backed up with only very flimsy evidence.

But the defendants still spent 113 days in jail.

After the hearing, one of the defendants Nalan Erkem and Dalkıran's attorney Murat Dinçer both said they had been expecting such a verdict. The court issued travel bans on two of the defendants Dalkıran and Acu, The next hearing being on Nov. 22.