My Colleagues' Case Is an Acid Test for What's Left of Turkey's Justice System | Opinion

In a scene that could have been lifted from a Hollywood thriller, dozens of police raided a hotel on a picturesque island near Istanbul, seizing computers and phones and bundling 10 people into a van.

The individuals and another man were arrested and charged with terrorism offenses. But they had committed no crime. They were prominent human rights activists and included two of my colleagues, İdil Eser, who was director of Amnesty International Turkey, and Taner Kılıç, its honorary chair.

That was back in the summer of 2017.

The activists spent many months in jail and two and a half years before the courts, and this week a judge will hand down the verdict. If convicted, they face jail terms of up to 15 years.

The prosecution alleges that the gathering in the hotel where they were arrested was a "secret meeting to organize a Gezi-type uprising" to foment "chaos" in Turkey. In fact, it was a human rights workshop, and it was anything but secret—one of the participants had even posted a photo of the hotel on her Instagram account. "Where are you staying?" a friend posted beneath the photo. "At the Ascot Hotel," she replied.

It's no coincidence that when human rights are undermined, the people who defend them are often attacked too. In repressive climates, the job of human rights activists is more vital but also more dangerous.

The activists were aware of the risks. They had seen how standing up for human rights was being increasingly criminalized in Turkey. And they knew that defending other people's freedoms could ultimately cost them their own.

From the moment they were charged, it was clear that the prosecution was aimed at silencing them and sending a powerful message to the rest of civil society: We can silence you too.

And so their ordeal began.

Over the course of 10 trial hearings, every aspect of the prosecutor's case has been disproved. The terrorism allegations have been repeatedly and categorically refuted, including by the state's own evidence. The prosecution's attempt to present legitimate human rights activities as unlawful acts has failed abysmally. But the judicial farce has continued.

The 11 defendants are not alone. Their situation is emblematic of the wave of repression that has gripped Turkey since the failed coup of 2016.

On Tuesday, Turkish businessman and activist Osman Kavala was cruelly detained by police on new charges just hours after he and eight other defendants were acquitted for their alleged role in the anti-government Gezi Park protests of 2013. Kavala has already spent almost 28 months in prison on pretrial detention. The new charges pertain to his supposed involvement in the 2016 coup attempt.

After almost four years, the crackdown that followed that coup attempt shows no sign of abating. Turkey's prisons are full, its courthouses flooded with cases, and fear has become the new norm. The government has launched a sustained assault on civil society, closing more than 1,300 nongovernmental organizations and 180 media outlets. Independent journalism has been all but obliterated. An astonishing 130,000 public service workers have been arbitrarily dismissed.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by these numbers, but the story of the 11 human rights defenders offers a glimpse into the magnitude of suffering wrought by this crackdown.

Turkey human rights
A portrait of rights group Amnesty International's honorary chairman in Turkey, Taner Kilic, is hung on June 6, 2018, in Paris. Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty

Taner Kılıç spent more than 14 months in prison before his release on bail, and eight of the other defendants were jailed for almost four months each. For the past two and a half years, the threat of lengthy prison sentences has hung over all of them.

One thing that has given them strength is the support they have received from around the world. More than 2 million people have joined the call for justice for the 11, including politicians and renowned actors, such as Ben Stiller, Whoopi Goldberg and Catherine Deneuve; musicians, such as Sting, Peter Gabriel, Angélique Kidjo and Annie Lennox; and artists, such as Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor.

"When it was a hard thing to do, Amnesty stood up for me. Now it's time for us to stand up for them," said U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden of the activists in a 2017 message.

This week, the eyes of the world will be on the Istanbul central court for what is an acid test for the Turkish justice system. We hope that this saga of injustice will end with the acquittal of the 11 human rights activists. But in Turkey, where truth and justice have become strangers, we will have to wait and see.

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and human rights campaigner. He is Amnesty International's media manager for Europe, Turkey and the Balkans

The views expressed in this article are the author's own

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