Charity’s Europe director says prosecutions aimed at silencing critical voices within Turkey since last year’s failed coup.
Eleven human rights activists including two senior Amnesty International employees have gone on trial in Istanbul on terrorism charges, in one of the most high-profile tests of Turkish criminal law since a failed coup in 2016.
Ten of the activists, including Amnesty’s Turkey director, İdil Eser, were arrested while attending a digital security training workshop in July.
They are accused of plotting an uprising and charged with aiding militants as well as the movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, blamed for the coup attempt. They face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.
Amnesty’s Turkey chairman, Taner Kılıç, who was imprisoned separately in June, appeared in court via video link from a prison in İzmir, western Turkey.
He will also appear at a hearing in İzmir on Thursday on a separate charge of being a member of a Gülen-linked organisation. Kılıç is accused of using Bylock, an encrypted mobile messaging app that the Turkish prosecuting authorities claim was used by Gülen supporters to communicate secretly before the coup attempt.
Tens of thousands of people have been arrested or dismissed from office in a wide-ranging crackdown since the coup, prompting criticism that the country has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Dozens of people protested outside the crowded courthouse in Istanbul’s justice palace as the trial opened, holding banners bearing images of the activists and the hashtag “FreeRightsDefenders”.
“I have dedicated my life to truth and justice and that is all I ask of this court,” said Özlem Dalkıran, a pro-democracy campaigner and one of the defendant, during opening statements to the court.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe director, said the prosecutions were aimed at silencing critical voices within Turkey.
“Without substance or foundation the Turkish authorities have tried and failed to build a case against İdil, Taner and the other nine human rights activists,” said Dalhuisen, who is attending the trial. “It took the prosecutor more than three months to come up with nothing. It should not take the judge more than half an hour to dismiss the case against them.”
The charges relate to a digital security and stress training workshop Amnesty held in a hotel outside Istanbul that the prosecuting authorities claim was a secret meeting to organise an uprising, or even conduct espionage. Most of the 10 Amnesty supporters present at the meeting have been held in jail since their arrest on 18 July. Kılıç did not attend the workshop, because he was in prison after being arrested the previous month. He is accused of knowing it was going ahead.
In a witness statement Kılıç said he had not even heard of the Bylock app until after the coup. The Turkish prosecution case states records in its file show his phone number downloaded the app in August 2014.
Turkish police escort people arrested for alleged links with the cleric Fethullah Gülen
Police escort people arrested for alleged links with the cleric Fethullah Gülen. More than 100,000 Turks have been detained or sacked in the crackdown. Photograph: Olcay Düzgün/AFP/Getty Images
Amnesty says it has conducted two forensic examinations of Kılıç’s phone, including one by the international technology firm SecureWorks, and found no trace of the ByLock app on the phone. Such an investigation could not be totally conclusive, but security experts say it would take “a highly skilled technical operator” to remove all trace of the app from the phone.
Amnesty has also pointed out that downloading ByLock should not of itself be a crime since the app had been downloaded more than 600,000 times throughout the world between April 2102 and April 2016.
But in a landmark case the Turkish supreme court in September ruled that the app was redesigned exclusively for the use of Gülenist members, and was therefore sufficient grounds to find someone guilty of being member of a terrorist organisation.
Turkish intelligence claims to have identified via IP addresses nearly 100,000 Turks who may have communicated with the ByLock server. But Amnesty argues that an IP address is not linked to a single individual, and cannot be used as the basis for charging anyone.
Kılıç is also accused of having a bank account with Bank Asya not for his own benefit, implying that he put money into the Gülen-linked bank on behalf of the Gülenist movement.
Kılıç, a respected lawyer specialising in refugee work, said tens of thousands of people have Asya bank accounts and that he used the account to help pay for the schooling of his daughter. He has also been accused of being linked via his brother-in-law with the Gülenist newspaper Zaman.
The Istanbul trial is one of several cases that have deepened a rift between Turkey and European nations, notably Germany, which considers one of the defendants, German national Peter Steudtner, as well as 10 other German or German-Turkish citizens jailed in Turkey, to be political prisoners.