In June 2017, the chair of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kiliç, was accused of using a messaging application called ByLock that the government says was also used by US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen and his followers, blamed by the country’s authorities for the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Kiliç and Amnesty’s country director Idil Eser were arrested in an unprecedented move — the first time in Amnesty’s history that a state has detained its chair and director at the same time. Eser was released in October.
During a hearing last week, the Istanbul 35th High Criminal Court ordered the conditional release of Kiliç from prison in western Izmir province. A prosecutor appealed against the decision, and the 36th Court accepted it.
The next day, the first court accepted the second court’s decision to continue Kiliç’s detention and instead of celebrating his release 31 January, when his family waited for him to walk out of the prison that night, Kiliç never appeared from Izmir jail. He was rearrested in the early hours of 1 February, in accordance with the second court’s decision.
“It is a travesty of justice and a cruel blow to his family and friends. It is also deeply worrying for the rule of law that when courts try to act in accordance to justice, but against the wishes of the state, they are forced to make another decision,” London-based Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Europe and Central Asia Division, Benjamin Ward, told Al-Ahram Weekly in interview.
Ward also referred to the cases of journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay who were not released despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling last month that the rights of the jailed journalists were violated as a result of their pre-trial detention. Alpay and Altan remained in prison when the penal courts where the journalists are standing trial refused to put the Constitutional Court’s ruling into effect, saying it overstepped its jurisdiction and usurped the trial court’s authority.
Last month, Turkish authorities admitted that thousands of people have been wrongly accused of downloading ByLock. They published lists containing the numbers of 11,480 mobile phone users, leading to mass releases. Taner Kiliç is not yet among those listed for release.
Amnesty International campaigner for Turkey Milena Buyum, who created the campaign #FreeTaner, tweeted on her page that Kiliç is innocent of the charges levelled against him, that prosecution hasn’t provided any evidence for allegations in almost eight months, and the court overturning its own ruling within 24 hours is a mockery of justice and that she and her team won’t stop campaigning for Kiliç until he is free.
Reacting to the rearrest, Secretary-General of Amnesty Salil Shetty tweeted “A disgrace and an outrageous travesty of justice.” “This is the latest example of the crisis in Turkey’s justice system that is ruining lives and hollowing out the right to a fair trial. To have been granted release only to have the door to freedom so callously slammed in his face is devastating for Kiliç, his family and all who stand for justice in Turkey,” Shetty added.
“Erdogan will do whatever is necessary to maintain control. All it takes is the Turkish propaganda machine to produce answers for Western consumption while he does what he does,” was the reaction of Washington-based Turkish analyst Uzay Bulut to the rearrest of Kiliç.
Taner Kiliç, 48, is one of the founding members of the Turkey branch of Amnesty International and its president since 2014. He studied law at Izmir’s Dokuz Eylül University. Kiliç’s next court hearing has been set for 21 June, the same month he was arrested a year ago.
Since the failed 2016 coup, there has been a remarkable deterioration in human rights conditions inside Turkey. Ward adds that few institutions and parts of society have not been affected. Most judges, journalists, human rights defenders and opposition mayors are victims of the general crackdown.
“There is no doubt that since the coup we have seen an intensification of the crackdown on human rights. What is most worrying to me is that not only that we see human rights abuses against individuals, but also that the government is little by little dismantling the checks and balances of the executive authority, using state of emergency powers and the need to pursue those linked to the coup, and that will only be cemented once the constitutional changes approved in the recent referendum come into force after the next election,” Ward told the Weekly.
The sweeping crackdown on the press in Turkey following the failed coup is continuing. “It is difficult to overstate how negative the climate is for media freedom in Turkey,” Ward stated, adding that Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists and media workers, “with around 150 behind bars at present”.
“Most newspapers and television channels lack independence and promote the government’s political line,” Ward said, adding that it is hard to see this changing “without significant reform to Turkey’s terrorism laws and efforts to restore judicial independence, and much greater willingness on the part of the government to tolerate public criticism”.
A couple of years ago, a group of Turkish journalists created a Twitter account called “Ben Gazeteçiyim,” or “I am a journalist,” in which they described that it “belongs to a group of volunteers who have launched an initiative to deepen solidarity with professional journalists” in Turkey.
Today the group has more than 29,000 followers. On 3 February, it tweeted, “As of today, 156 journalists are in prison, almost 200 media related organisations are closed, thousands of journalists are unemployed as their press cards are cancelled and thousand others who can do reporting from outside the country are banned from travel, they are placed under censorship and arrest threats.”
Turkish media is still censoring news regarding the “Olive Branch” military operation on the Syrian town of Afrin. At least 150 individuals, including journalists and politicians, have been detained in police raids since the operation was launched last month.
“We are aware of dozens of people detained in Turkey by police over tweets and other statements that do not advocate violence but are critical of the operation on Afrin.” Ward commented.
During the operation, a Turkish airstrike hit the 3,000-year-old Ain Dara Temple located in the Kurdish area south of Afrin. The temple is considered one of the most important monuments in Syria built by the Syro-Hittites or Neo-Hittites, an ancient northwest Semitic tribe who emerged in the Late Bronze Age.
Washington-based journalist Uzay Bulut says Turkey’s attacks on cultural sites goes back decades. “Between 1914 and 1923, Turkish regimes targeted Christian indigenous peoples of Ottoman Turkey — Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians — and largely annihilated them in line with their policies of forced Turkification and Islamisation. They also destroyed much of the victims’ cultural and religious monuments,” Bulut told the Weekly, adding that today, only around 0.2 per cent of Turkey’s population is Christian or Jewish, “so the Turkish regime is now targeting Kurds in line with its violent Turkish supremacism. And the damage to antiquities done by Turkish bombs is irrelevant as long as Erdogan is able to achieve his ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds who pose the greatest danger to the Turkish myth of Turkishness today.”
The Turkish analyst believes the government of Turkey is ready and willing to do anything in order to stop Kurds from having a political status in the region.
Public debate on the return of Syrian refugees has been growing in Turkey. They are being forced back with bullets and abuse by Turkish border guards. HRW warned that Syria is too dangerous for civilians to be sent back, especially after Turkey opened up a new front in the conflict with a cross-border assault on Kurdish militia in Afrin.
“Turkey deserves great credit for hosting millions of Syrian refugees. But that does not absolve it of the responsibility to allow those fleeing violence and abuse in Syria to seek refuge in Turkey. It’s also important that the European Union does much more to help Turkey meet that responsibility, not only with resources but also by increasing resettlement of Syrians by EU member states,” Ward told the Weekly.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly