ISTANBUL - A trial begins in Istanbul Wednesday for eleven prominent human rights activists, including two foreign nationals, in a case that is drawing criticism from international human rights organizations who say it is part of a campaign by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to silence criticism and scrutiny in Turkey in the wake of last year's coup attempt.
The defendants face prison sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
Amnesty International's chairman in Turkey, Taner Kilic, and Idil Eser, Amnesty International’s Turkey director, are among those on trial. The case centers on a digital security seminar that was held on Buyukada, an island on the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul, that focused on security and coping with stress. In a 15-page indictment, prosecutors allege the meeting was part of a conspiracy to unseat the government by inciting civil unrest
“It's a completely baseless case, there is not a shred of evidence,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's Turkey researcher. "It's an attempt to scare and silence human rights civil society. That's why Turkey's most prominent human rights defenders and human rights organizations have been swept up in this case,” he said.
Key members of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, one of Turkey’s most respected and oldest human rights groups, are among those on trial Tuesday.
Erdogan has vigorously defended the charges against the activists, portraying the case as an example that no one is above the law and evidence that Turkey faces a threat by international conspirators and unidentified countries following the failed coup. Erdogan on Tuesday lashed out at EU nations whose leaders have been critical of his crackdown and what they see as tightening controls on free speech. “We expect European leaders to stop targeting Turkey and to return to common sense," the Turkish leader said at an event in the capital, Ankara, on Monday.
Mounting tensions with Europe
Tuesday’s trial is likely to further ratchet up tensions between Turkey and Europe. Two of the defendants are European nationals: Swedish national Ali Gharavri and German Peter Steudtner, both of whom were giving seminars at the meeting where the human rights advocates were arrested. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has strongly criticized the arrests, saying “Innocent people are caught up in the wheels of justice,” in Turkey.”
“Linking the work of Steudtner and other human rights activists, who are on trial with him, to the support of terrorism, to imprison and prosecute them, is highly absurd,” wrote European Parliamentarian Rebecca Harms in a statement released Tuesday. "The arbitrary detention of foreign citizens in Turkey proves to be more and more a measure by which the Turkish leadership wants to pressure the home countries of those concerned," she said.
Under emergency rule introduced last year following the botched military coup, more than 50,000 people have been arrested and 150,000 others have lost their jobs.
Critics point to what they see as a lack of evidence to justify many of the prosecutions.
"If you look at the evidence, for example, against Idil Eser, Amnesty International's director, it's all to do with an Amnesty International campaign and public documents,” said Gardner. "The prosecutors have had three months of investigations to come up with evidence against human rights defenders and came up with nothing.”
Among the evidence against the defendants is a Tweet telling participants to turn off their phones and “enjoy the boat ride” to the island where the seminar was being held.
Courts as intimidation tool
There is a growing suspicion among observers that the trial is part of a campaign to intimidate wider civil society.
"The arrests of the human rights activists, I think, gives us a very bleak picture of the Turkish civic society, or what the regime means by 'civic society,'" observes political scientist Cengiz Aktar. "It's not very different from what we see in Russia, completely curtailed and diminished.”
Tuesday’s prosecution of human rights advocates comes amid a rash of arrests and trials of journalists. Media freedom groups have dubbed Turkey the world's worst jailor of journalists, claiming more than 150 reporters are imprisoned.
On Tuesday, six more journalists went on trial for reporting on leaked emails that allegedly were written by Berat Albayrak, son-in-law of President Erdogan, and Turkey's energy minister. The emails are considered to be in the public domain, yet observers note the journalists are being prosecuted for publishing state secrets.
The clampdown on media and freedom of expression is drawing further condemnation among Europeans already skeptical of Turkey's readiness to continue its bid to some day join the EU.
“There cannot be an effective political debate when journalists cannot report or question political leaders without fear of harassment or arrest,” said Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian politician with the Social Democrats and member of the European Parliament. "As Turkey’s political situation worsens, it remains imperative to offer support to, and speak about, those imprisoned for their journalism.”