Analysts believe that Ankara is sending a message to Washington and Brussels
ISTANBUL – Amnesty International’s Turkey director and seven other human rights activists being held on terrorism charges were released on bail late Wednesday night.
The eight activists, including German Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi, were arrested at a workshop on digital security that was raided by police on July 18. They were charged with plotting an uprising and aiding terrorist organizations and face up to 15 years in prison.
Two other individuals in the same case were previously released and Amnesty’s Turkey chairperson, Taner Kılıç, who is being tried in a separate case in Izmir that will now be merged with the first case, remains in custody after a hearing on Thursday.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling of happiness at the release of the eight remaining defenders…but Taner’s continued detention is very disappointing, to say the least,” Turkey campaigner for Amnesty Milena Buyum told The Media Line.
“What we would have liked to have seen would have been the dismissal of the case altogether.”
The next hearing for all 11 defendants will be held on November 22.
Over 60,000 people have been arrested and 150,000 fired or suspended in an immense purge of government opponents since the failed military coup on July 15 of last year.
“Their cases are part of a worrying trend of judicial and administrative actions targeting human rights defenders and civil society activists in Turkey, as well as journalists and academics,” Secretary General of the European Parliament’s Turkey Forum Laura Batalla wrote The Media Line in an email.
“In these really absurd, cooked up charges, when judges have to face a lot of monitors, a lot of journalists, they have a much harder time passing a verdict that they know is going to be really scrutinized and criticized,” Nate Schenkkan, who covers Central Asia and Eurasia for rights monitor Freedom House, told The Media Line.
“There’s so many of these cases [and] they’re so absurdly put together and written. The way that they’re concocted is just conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory all lumped together,” he asserted.
Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies in the European Union and United States have sharply declined since the failed coup.
On October 8, Washington suspended all non-immigrant visa services to Turkish citizens after authorities apprehended two staff members of the U.S. consular service in Istanbul and accused them of involvement in the attempted government overthrow. Turkish authorities have also been holding American pastor Andrew Brunson and astronaut Serkan Gölge in custody for over a year, both on terrorism charges.
“This stuff has really enraged Congress and so the State Department is feeling it from that side,” Schenkkan said. “I think Western pressure [on Ankara] mattered a lot,” in the release of the eight defendants.
On October 25, fourteen U.S. senators, including John McCain, sent a bipartisan letter to President Trump calling for a firmer stance on Turkey.
Howard Eissenstat, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy and Professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University, believes Washington and Europe have fundamentally changed the way they view Ankara.
“For a long time Turkey was perceived as an ally, as a reliable bastion of stability, and because that was the narrative, a lot of human rights abuses were ignored or marginalized,” he told the Media Line.
“Now Turkey is seen as a rogue state, as breaking basic norms of the rule of law.”
Last November the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for a temporary freeze of membership talks with Ankara, and last week proposed a reduction of up to 80 million euros in E.U. funding to Turkey. For its part, Germany is also reportedly mulling a direct funding cut to Turkey.
Experts speculate that the jailed activists were targeted for their western links.
“It was certainly an attack on civil society, but I think it was also an attack on that cooperation with the west,” Eissenstat said. “It was a political case from the beginning. I think it was decided from the top.”
Eissenstat contends this and other recent cases mark an expansion of Ankara’s purge.
On October 18, philanthropist businessman and chairman of the Anatolian Culture center Osman Kavala was detained, with no information on charges given. A day later, Şaban Kardaş, head of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies think tank, was also detained.
“The Kavala and [Kardaş] cases are a portent of a new wave. Pretty much everybody sees that coming,” Eissenstat explained.
Kavala, in particular, was a major figure in Turkish civil society with very close links to Europe.
“Osman Kavala is a leading figure in Turkey’s civil society, arts and culture scene and is a long-standing interlocutor and advocate of EU-Turkey relations,” Batalla, an expert in EU affairs, stated. “A cross-party initiative in the European Parliament has been launched to urge the Turkish government to order his immediate release.”
But Batalla nevertheless argues that it is crucial for Europe to keep engaging with Turkey.
“Suspending membership talks with Turkey would be a fatal strategic mistake as the accession process─even if frozen─remains the best tool for democratic change in the country.”
Over 1,000 NGOs have been shuttered as part of the purge, and rights champion Buyum says the crackdown has had a chilling effect on activists.
“This sends a message to the rest of civil society, the rest of dissenting voices, that you speak out at your own peril [and] you could be imprisoned for weeks, months, potentially years.”
Freedom House’s Schenkkan agrees that civil society feels intimidated, but notes that activists are used to working in difficult conditions.
“I kind of expect that people are just going to keep going because they’re really just so damn tough.”