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Turkey: Convictions of former Amnesty staff overturned, but fight against 'curtailing of human rights' in country continues

Convictions of four human rights defenders, on trial since 2017, quashed by Turkey’s highest court

Defendants include Taner Kılıç, Amnesty Turkey’s Honorary Chair, and Idil Eser, Amnesty Turkey’s former director

‘We will continue to stand with Taner until the end and to fight against the relentless curtailing of human rights in Turkey’ - Agnès Callamard

The decision by Turkey’s highest appeals court to overturn baseless convictions of Amnesty Turkey’s Honorary Chair and three other human rights defenders is a huge relief, yet also highlights once more the politically motivated nature of the prosecutions, Amnesty International said today.

The ruling by the Court of Cassation on the convictions of Taner Kılıç, İdil Eser, Özlem Dalkıran and Günal Kurşun - four of 11 human rights defenders in the Büyükada case, who were convicted in July 2020 - comes more than five years after their initial arrests in the summer of 2017.

Taner Kılıç’s case was quashed on the grounds of ‘incomplete investigation’ and referred back to the first instance court.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“Today’s ruling reveals the true purpose of such politically-motivated prosecutions: using the courts as a weapon to silence critical voices.

“While we are hugely relieved that the convictions have finally been quashed, the fact that the court has ruled that Taner’s case requires further investigation is disappointing.

“For more than five years, we have watched the wheels of injustice grind as the baseless claims levelled against these four brave human rights defenders have been accepted as fact by successive courts.

“We celebrate this decision today, but we do not forget that across Turkey many human rights defenders are languishing in jail, living in fear of arrest or facing similar unfounded prosecutions.

“We will take strength from today’s victory. We will continue to stand with Taner until the end and to fight against the relentless curtailing of human rights in Turkey, and on behalf of those who refuse to be silenced by the government’s threats.”

Arrests of Amnesty Turkey representatives

Taner Kılıç, a refugee rights lawyer and Honorary Chair of Amnesty’s Turkey section, was arrested in June 2017 and detained in prison for more than 14 months. Despite a complete lack of evidence, in July 2020, he was convicted of “membership of a terrorist organisation” and sentenced to six years and three months in prison.

İdil Eser, Özlem Dalkıran and Günal Kurşun were all convicted for 25 months for “assisting a terrorist organisation” and spent more than three months in behind bars in 2017.

Over the course of 12 court hearings, every allegation levelled against the four human rights activists was repeatedly and comprehensively proven baseless, including in the state’s own police report.

In May, the European Court reaffirmed that the authorities in Turkey did not have “any reasonable suspicion that Taner Kılıç had committed an offence”. It also found that his pre-trial detention under terrorism-related charges was “directly linked to his activity as a human rights defender”. This binding decision became final in October.

Founding members of Amnesty Turkey

Taner Kılıç and Özlem Dalkıran are both founding members of Amnesty Turkey. Over the last 20 years, they have played a crucial role in defending human rights as part of the organisation, and also the wider human rights community in Turkey.

At the time of her arrest in July 2017, Idil Eser was the Director of Amnesty Turkey. Günal Kurşun, a lawyer, international criminal law expert and a member of Amnesty Turkey since its early days, is a prominent human rights defender in the country.

Taner Kılıç was alleged to have downloaded and used the ByLock messaging app, which the prosecution claimed was used for communication by the Gülen movement, a group blamed for organising an attempted coup in 2016.

Two forensic analyses of Kılıç’s phone commissioned by Amnesty, however, found no trace of ByLock having ever being installed. In June 2018, any legitimacy of the prosecutor’s case was stripped away in the police report submitted to the court, which also concluded that no evidence of ByLock on Kılıç’s phone had been found. Nevertheless, merely downloading or using an app would not be sufficient evidence of alleged offences, as concluded in a recent ECtHR judgment concerning another applicant, unrelated to the Büyükada defendants. 

Istanbul 10

İdil Eser, Özlem Dalkıran and Günal Kurşun were among 10 people, dubbed the Istanbul 10, who were detained by police as they attended a workshop on well-being and digital security on 5 July 2017 on Istanbul’s Büyükada island.

On 4 October 2017, an Istanbul prosecutor filed an indictment against the Istanbul 10, and also Taner Kılıç, who was allegedly aware of preparations for the workshop and in contact with two defendants.

At his first trial hearing on 26 October, the judge accepted the prosecutor’s application to merge Kılıç’s prosecution that had been opened in Izmir, with that of the other ten human rights defenders, even though the accusations levelled against him had nothing to do with the workshop and the two cases were in no way connected.

Amnesty has previously published an analysis of the case against Taner Kılıç and detailed further information about the case in general.

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