Amnesty colleagues behind bars in Turkey for championing human rights
By Stefan Simanowitz
A month ago, Hatice Kılıç and her three daughters waited outside Şakran prison beneath a dark sky. The temperature was close to freezing, but they did not feel the cold. All their attention was focused on those metal gates and how they would soon roll open and Taner Kılıç – husband and father – would walk through them and into their arms.
Earlier that day, the Istanbul trial court had ruled to conditionally release Taner Kılıç, a lawyer and the Chair of Amnesty Turkey who has been held, detained on baseless “terrorism” charges, since last June. His wife and children had come to prison in Izmir to pick him up in a state of elated expectation.
Just after midnight, the prison gates opened and Taner Kılıç was driven out in a police car. But he was not a free man. Instead of being released he was driven past his family to a local Gendarmerie station, where he was locked up overnight. Unbeknown to the welcoming party, the Prosecutor had appealed the court’s decision to release him. A day later, and in the absence of new evidence or justification, the same court that had ruled Taner’s release overturned its own decision and ruled that Taner should remain in prison.
Taner has committed no crime. He is charged with “membership of a terrorist organization” based on the false allegation that he downloaded ByLock, a messaging application the authorities say was used by those who organized the 2016 coup attempt. But, after nearly nine months behind bars, no credible evidence has been presented to substantiate this claim. On the contrary, two independent forensic experts found that there was no trace of ByLock ever having been on his phone. But if he is found guilty, he could face up to 15 years in jail.
In December, the authorities admitted mistakes were made in the cases of thousands of people who have been detained for supposedly downloading the Bylock app. They published lists containing the details of more than 11,400 mobile phone users clearing them of the alleged wrongdoing. This resulted in the mass release of prisoners. Unfortunately, Taner was not on the lists.
Taner has become a potent symbol of the thousands of people unjustly jailed as part of the crackdown that has gripped Turkey since the failed coup in 2016.
Two weeks ago, in a shocking example of miscarriage of justice, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak became the first Turkish journalists to be convicted of involvement in the coup attempt. They received aggravated life sentences for "attempting to overthrow the government" merely for doing their work as journalists.
The bitter irony of being found guilty of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” will not be lost on Mehmet Altan, whose release was ordered just last month by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that his detention violated his constitutional rights such as the right to liberty and security, and to freedom of expression. The trial court refused to implement the ruling, flouting the constitution. In a different country, such a situation would lead to a constitutional crisis; in Turkey, it felt like the grip was further tightening and the outrage was limited to an ever shrinking few brave voices.
Altan’s sentence sets a chilling precedent for scores of other journalists facing trials on similar trumped-up “terrorism” charges in a country which has become the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.
But the international outcry is growing. David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression said that the Altan’s sentence “critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey.” A month ago, after the ruling to release Taner was overturned, five UN experts called on Turkish authorities to “immediately release Mr Kılıç and drop the terrorism charges against him.”
I recall my conversation with Gülnihal Kılıç, Taner’s middle daughter after his second hearing in November, when she told me that her situation felt like a bad dream from which she was waiting to wake up. “It is not something that becomes normal over time,” she told me. “On the contrary, my father’s imprisonment becomes more and more difficult for us to endure as each day passes.”
And yet she and her family remain resolute. They know that the Turkish government is using their father’s case to send a warning to other human rights defenders who could face similar charges if they continue their work. And they also know Taner is on the right side of history.
“I have always been proud of my father and feel lucky to be his daughter, now more than ever,” said Gülnihal last month, soon after watching her father being led back to prison. “We will continue to fight for my father’s release and my family are so thankful to everyone who stands with us and shares our sorrow in these tough times.”
Stefan Simanowitz is Amnesty’s Europe Media. He attended Taner Kilic’s second hearing as part of an Amnesty delegation. Follow Stefan on Twitter @StefSimanowitz
This blog was first published on Deutsche Welle
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.