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A new low: Turkey detains eight human rights defenders

A demonstration in Washington, 15 June 2017, urging the US to end its silence on the imprisonment of Taner Kilic, chair of Amnesty International Turkey
A demonstration in Washington, 15 June 2017, urging the US to end its silence on the imprisonment of Taner Kilic, chair of Amnesty International Turkey

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

IFEX members and other rights organisations were unanimous in declaring the 5 July 2017 detention of eight human rights defenders (HRDs) a "new low" for Turkey.

The eight, which include Amnesty International's Turkey Director İdil Eser, along with the two security trainers, were arrested at their hotel by Turkish police in Büyükada, Istanbul; the group had been attending a workshop on digital security and other types of protection. All are still currently in detention and are reportedly under investigation for alleged membership of an armed organisation.

After their arrest, the HRDs were taken to different police stations. However, as Bianet reports, they remained incommunicado until 3pm Turkish time on 6 July. Human Rights Watch reports that the detainees were not allowed to see their lawyers until the day after their arrest and that they could be held for a further seven days while the police carry out their investigation. No evidence suggesting membership of an armed group has been presented to the HRDs' lawyers.

The detained HRDs are: Özlem Dalkıran (Citizens' Assembly); lawyer Nalan Erkem (Citizens' Assembly); İlknur Üstün (Women's Coalition); İdil Eser (Amnesty International Turkey director); Veli Acu (Human Rights Agenda Association); lawyer Günal Kurşun (Human Rights Agenda Association); Şeymus Özbekli (Rights Initiative); and Nejat Taştan (Equal Rights Watch Association).

As Index on Censorship reports, these arrests come only weeks after the unlawful detention of Taner Kiliç, chair of Amnesty International Turkey, and 22 lawyers (all of whom have yet to be released).

The HRDs are being investigated under Turkey's anti-terrorism legislation and are the latest in a very long list of high profile activists, journalists and opposition voices that have been harassed, detained or convicted during the year-long state of emergency that was declared following the failed coup in 2016.

Condemnations and calls for their immediate release poured in from IFEX members and others in the rights community. Gauri van Gulik, Deputy Europe Director at Amnesty International, conveyed both shock and outrage in her simple tweet:

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, was much blunter:
Roth's colleague, Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, described the detentions as "a new low for the Turkish state." He said: "The Turkish government should ensure their immediate and unconditional release and provide a public explanation of why it is investigating them as members of a terrorist organisation… The dubious circumstances in which Turkey arrested the rights activists points to the alleged charges being arbitrary and unfounded... We are witnessing how far the Turkish state will go in its assault on human rights."

Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19, said: "The detention of Idil Eser and others in yesterday's workshop alongside their trainers is further evidence of the Turkish government's disrespect for human rights and the rule of law. Their detention is the latest in a series of arrests of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists in Turkey and clearly represents a further tightening of control over civil society. They should be released immediately."

Melody Patry, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, said: "By detaining them incommunicado and denying them access to a lawyer, Turkey shows its complete disregard for the rule of law."

Danny O'Brien, International Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wrote that everyone should be free to learn to protect themselves online and that this is information they have the right to share. "Digital security trainings like this one are frequently held across the world to educate lawyers, journalists, and human rights advocates on how best to protect themselves and their communities. Teaching or learning these skills is certainly no grounds for detention. By conducting this raid, Turkey joins Iran and Ethiopia as countries where innocent citizens are intimidated and arrested simply for learning the basic principles of modern technology."

Reporters Without Borders and PEN International were also quick to express their shock:

IFEX Executive Director Annie Game warned that detentions such as these would backfire on Turkey, and would only increase resistance to President Erdogan.
Condemnation also came from beyond the NGO world. Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, issued this statement:
The Dutch MEP Kati Piri, Turkey rapporteur for the European Parliament and author of a parliamentary report recommending that Turkey's EU accession talks be suspended if Turkey implements recent worrying constitutional reforms, also called for the release of the human rights defenders:
The European Parliament vote to which she was referring was on whether to adopt the recommendations in her report. This took place just hours later, and MEPs grabbed the opportunity to punish Turkey by voting overwhelmingly to adopt Piri's recommendations.

The tension between the EU and Turkey looks set to be exacerbated by the detention of the HRDs; the timing will further complicate diplomatic relations. As Arzu Geybullayeva, writing for the Global Voices website, notes:

"The detentions occurred on the eve of EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn's July 6 visit to Ankara to discuss Turkey's troubled accession bid, after the European parliament called for a suspension of negotiations."

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