Thought Crimes and Guilt by Association in Turkey

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Nate Schenkkan, Project Director, Nations in Transit

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In a bizarre case against human rights activists, prosecutors are stretching the definition of terrorism beyond all recognition.

On October 17, a court in Turkey accepted an indictment for membership in a terrorist organization against 11 human rights defenders, 10 of whom had gathered on Büyükada, an island in Istanbul, for a digital security training in July. Among those charged are the director of Amnesty International’s Turkey branch, İdil Eser; a German human rights trainer, Peter Steudtner; and a Swedish trainer, Ali Gharavi. The other seven—Özlem Dalkıran, Günal Kurşun, Veli Acu, Nalan Erkem, İlknur Üstün, Nejat Taştan, and Şeyhmus Özbekli—represent several of Turkey’s most active human rights organizations.

In accepting the indictment, the court granted the prosecution’s request to combine the charges against the “Istanbul 10” with additional charges against the chair of Amnesty Turkey, Taner Kılıç, who had been arrested in June. The first hearing for all 11 defendants will take place on October 25.

The indictment against the group illustrates the Turkish authorities’ expanding practice of prosecuting normal civic activities as terrorist crimes.

Conspiracy theory as courtroom evidence

The 11 human rights defenders are charged with assisting a paradoxical trio of terrorist groups: what Turkey’s government calls FETÖ/PDY, better known internationally as the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gülen; the Marxist separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK; and another Marxist group linked to the Assad regime in Syria, the DHKP-C. Even the indictment euphemistically acknowledges the groups’ “different ideologies.” The nationalist and Islamist Gülen movement despises the PKK and Marxists in general, and while it held powerful positions in the judiciary before the current crackdown on it began in 2014, it expended no small part of its energies prosecuting Kurdish activists and trying to disrupt the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state.

The actual facts of the indictment constitute a list of normal activities for a group of civic-minded, mostly left-of-center human rights defenders in Turkey. They go to meetings about social justice causes; they campaign for other activists; they petition embassies for funding and for advocacy causes; they read and write about topics that the government doesn’t like.

But in the interpretation of the prosecutor, these normal activities become nefarious plots with terrorist groups against the constitutional order of Turkey, which is portrayed as indivisible from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). For instance, documents condemning Erdoğan’s statements during the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and denouncing human rights violations after the 2016 coup attempt are held up as evidence of “shaping public opinion in favor of the activities of [terrorist] organizations.”

Condemned through incidental contact

The so-called evidence linking the human rights defenders to these disparate organizations rests on the thinnest forms of guilt by association. As would be expected at a digital security training, the participants discussed encryption and messaging apps. The messaging app ByLock—use of which, the government has decided, is prima facie evidence of membership in the Gülen movement—plays a prominent role in the indictment. This is not because the accused themselves used it, but because they were allegedly in contact with other people who did, including in one case a former Ministry of Development official. This is now apparently considered enough to declare that someone is “in relationship to” a terrorist organization.

The only defendant accused of actually using ByLock is Kılıç, the Amnesty Turkey chairperson; he denies having ever used, downloaded, or even heard of the app before the coup attempt. Elsewhere it is noted that Gunal Kurşun sent money to a famous human rights defender who has worked for Gülen-affiliated media in the years before they were closed by court order; Kurşun also received funds from a Gülenist media house—because he wrote columns about criminal law for one of its outlets.

In another incident noted in the indictment, an anonymous Facebook user who claimed to be a member of the PKK asked about joining Amnesty Turkey, which the prosecution presents as evidence of collaboration with the organization, even though the anonymous user got nothing more than a pro forma response. Veli Acu is accused of possessing widely accessible books by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan (in prison since 1999) in PDF format on his computer.

Concerning the DHKP-C, the prosecution relies heavily on public campaigns on behalf of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, two teachers who went on hunger strike after being arbitrarily fired in the post-coup purge, and whom the government later arrested on charges of DHKP-C membership after their protests started to draw too much support. Given that many of the indicted activists have been openly working for the release of the teachers, it is hard to imagine how Amnesty Turkey’s director could not have had materials about them, or why campaigning for two well-known teachers constitutes support for terrorism. Moreover, Gülmen and Özakça have not yet been convicted of terrorism charges. As with the inclusion of connections to Kılıç, the indictment presents contact with someone accused of terrorism as equivalent to terrorism itself.

Criminalizing dissent

In the centerpiece of the indictment, the prosecutor refers to notes from another meeting (not the one at which the participants were arrested) where some defendants discussed how to sustain advocacy momentum after the passionate campaign against the April 2017 constitutional referendum on expanding presidential powers. The indictment interprets this as an effort to overthrow the constitutional order through “violent events similar to the Gezi Park protests that create chaos.” The prosecutor then claims that terrorist groups played a “leading role” in the Gezi Park protests “under the guise of NGOs.” The implication is that even the discussion of organizing antigovernment protests in Turkey must be considered a threat to the constitutional order.

At bottom, the prosecutor’s case rests on the idea that people who campaign against government policies are assisting terrorists, because terrorists are also against the government. In this and in thousands of other cases around the country, people are being prosecuted for who they know and what they think, not what they have done. 

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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