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Ylenia Gostoli

Human rights workers in 'Istanbul 11' case released on bail

One of the 'Istanbul 11' is Amnesty International's director in Turkey, Idil Eser [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 October, 2017

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Human rights workers detained by Turkey since July have been released on bail by a court in Istanbul after a 12-hour hearing.

Eight human rights workers detained in Turkey since last July have been released on bail by a court in Istanbul.

The decision came just before midnight on Wednesday at the end of a gruelling 12-hour hearing, in a case that involves a total of eleven accused - including the chair and the director of Amnesty International Turkey, as well as a Swedish and a German national - in one of the most high-profile trials since the coup attempt in July last year.

Dubbed "the Istanbul eleven", they face charges under Turkey's terrorism laws and are accused of plotting an uprising against the government. Seven were released unconditionally, while one was issued with a travel ban.

The charges against them, which include participation in a "secret" workshop and links to what Turkey considers terrorist organisations including the Gülen movement and the Kurdish PKK, have not been dropped. If found guilty, the activists face up to 15 years in prison.

The next hearing in the case will be on November 22. 

Amnesty International's Turkey chair, Taner Kılıç, remains in prison as he faces separate charges of alleged links to Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Turkey has accused of masterminding last year's coup attempt.

A hearing on his trial on Thursday in Izmir, where he has been detained since June, ruled he should continue to be detained.

"Over the last 24 hours we have seen the twin hands of Turkey's fickle justice system at play," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary-general. "While one grants liberty, the other, confronted with no less baseless charges, takes it away."

Kılıç is accused of using Bylock, an encrypted mobile messaging application that the Turkish authorities say was used by the Gülen movement to communicate before the coup attempt.

The rest of the accused were originally detained on July 5, when police raided a workshop in a hotel in Büyükada, one of the islands off the coast of Istanbul. They were trainers and organisers of a "digital security and information management workshop" that was taking place there with the participation of a number of human rights organisations working in Turkey.

Kılıç, who had not been present at the workshop, was later added to the indictment on grounds he had been aware of the meeting and its allegedly subversive aims.

Tens of protesters, including friends, colleagues, family and supporters of the arrested gathered in front of the courthouse on Wednesday morning, holding banners that said "free rights defenders".

In a statement to the press before the hearing, Feray Salman of the IHOP (Human Rights Joint Platform), a national umbrella group for Turkish human rights organisations, said the charges against them were based on a "fictional scenario", and decried both a "media smear campaign" against the human rights workers and and the investigation process.

"We family members, friends and lawyers stand by them and will continue our work," she added.

The hearing was attended by a number of foreign diplomats, including from the UK, Norway, Sweden and Germany

'International trial'

The hearing was attended by a number of foreign diplomats, including from the UK, Norway, Sweden and Germany, as well as representatives from international and local human rights organisations.

While two of the accused had been released on bail last July, seven were held in Silivri, Turkey's highest security prison near Istanbul. During the course of the day, they were called to present their defence to the judges. Two of the defendants, including Kılıç and İlknur Üstün from the Women's Coalition, appeared in court via video link from prisons in Izmir and Ankara.

They read out lengthy statements in which they dissected the evidence against them, while international and Turkish observers took turns inside the crowded courtroom, and a number of others amassed outside for hours hoping to be let in.

German and Swedish officials were closely watching the trial, which involves two of their citizens - Ali Gharavi, a Swedish-Iranian IT expert, and Peter Steudtner, an NGO consultant and trainer. They'd been hired to train participants at the workshop.

Steudtner mentioned during the hearing he had been denied access to adequate translation the first time he appeared in court, and that during his nearly four months in detention he had only been allowed to talk to his family every two weeks for ten minutes.

Gharavi showed judges a map of Turkey and the region printed on cardboard, that the prosecutor used as evidence against him.

In the map, the east and southeast of Turkey (predominantly Kurdish areas) were shown as being connected to a separate state. Gharavi explained he had used the map during a training programme for high school teachers on Iran, and that it refers to languages in the region rather than making a political statement about Turkey's territorial integrity.

Around 300 people were killed during an attempted coup last year, which led to Turkey declaring a state of emergency. Since then, about 90,000 civil servants have been sacked from their jobs, and tens of thousands have been detained, accused of links to the coup or the Gülen movement. Hundreds of media outlets and NGOs have been shut down.

While the trial was ongoing, the European Parliament voted to cut €50 million ($59m) in Turkey's pre-accession funds for 2018, with another €30 million ($35m) put in reserve "in view of the worrying deterioration of the situation as regards democracy, rule of law and human rights", according to a press release. The EU closely cooperates with Turkey in matters of security and migration.

Amnesty International has welcomed the release of its Turkey country director, Idil Eser, but reiterated that the prosecutions were an "attempt to silence critical voices within Turkey". It's the first time that the organisation's two top country officials have been detained at the same time.

"Tonight we take a brief moment to celebrate, but tomorrow we will continue our struggle to ensure that Taner, İdil and their colleagues are acquitted of these baseless charges. We will not stop until the charges are dropped and all of them are free," said Amnesty's Shetty on Wednesday night.

Follow Ylenia Gostoli on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli

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