Turkish police detained the group of prominent activists at a hotel on the island of Büyükada in Istanbul, where they were attending a workshop on protecting the work of human rights defenders. The activists were subsequently taken to various police stations, and lawyers told Human Rights Watch the rights defenders are under investigation for membership of an armed organization, though there is no information on any evidence against them.
“Detaining some of Turkey’s leading rights activists at a training workshop is a repressive new low for the Turkish state,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish government should ensure their immediate and unconditional release and provide a public explanation of why it is investigating them as members of a terrorist organization.”
The detained rights defenders are: Özlem Dalkıran (Citizens’ Assembly); lawyer Nalan Erkem (Citizens’ Assembly); İlknur Üstün (Women’s Coalition); İdil Eser (Amnesty International Turkey director); Veli Acu (Human Rights Agenda Association); lawyer Günal Kurşun (Human Rights Agenda Association); Şeymus Özbekli (Rights Initiative); Nejat Taştan (Equal Rights Watch Association); Ali Gharavi (information security consultant – Swedish national); and Peter Steudtner (information security consultant – German national). The owner of the hotel where the training was taking place, whose name is unknown, and another unnamed person were also detained.
The 12 were detained a day before high-level meetings in Ankara with the European Union commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, in an effort to continue the EU-Turkey dialogue. Hahn should condemn the detentions to the highest levels of Turkish government and publicly call for the human rights defenders to be unconditionally released, Human Rights Watch said.
The police initially informed lawyers acting for the detained human rights defenders that the authorities were acting on an unspecified tip and announced that the detainees would not be allowed access to their lawyers for 24 hours, a measure permissible for organized crime and crimes punishable under Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law. The activists finally met with their lawyers on the afternoon of July 6 and the lawyers learned that their clients are being investigated for membership of an armed organization, a terrorist offense, and may be held for seven days. There is no information about any evidence to support such an investigation or on why the human rights defenders are being targeted.
The pro-government media have smeared the detained activists with the label “agents,” a term they often use to defame government critics and foreigners in Turkey. The same media reports also allude to a meeting of foreigners in a hotel on Büyükada at the time of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. The pro-government media claimed at the time that the gathering was a meeting of CIA agents involved in the coup plot.
The new arrests follow the arrest of the chair of Amnesty Turkey, Taner Kılıç a human rights lawyer, on June 6. Kılıç is in pretrial detention pending the completion of a criminal investigation for which he will face trumped up terrorism charges.
“The dubious circumstances in which Turkey arrested the rights activists points to the alleged charges being arbitrary and unfounded,” Williamson said. “We are witnessing how far the Turkish state will go in its assault on human rights.”