Turkish court delays verdict in rights activists’ trial

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Feray Salman

Turkish activist Feray Salman and international human rights activists speak to the media before the trial of the Amnesty International’s former Turkey chairman and 10 other activists, in Istanbul, Wednesday, Feb. 19. 2020. A court in Istanbul will hand down verdicts for defendants in the closely-watched trial on charges of belonging to or aiding terror groups. The case against activists heightened concerns about Turkey’s treatment of human rights defenders. (AP Photo)

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ISTANBUL (AP) — A court in Istanbul on Wednesday delayed handing down its rulings in the case of 11 prominent human rights activists on trial for terror-related charges and adjourned proceedings until April.

During the court session, the activists asked to be acquitted of charges of belonging to or aiding terror groups.

Theclosely-watchedcase against Amnesty International’s former Turkey chairman and 10 other activists heightened concerns about Turkey’s treatment of human rights defenders and helped sour Turkey’s relations with European nations, notably with Germany.

The court in Istanbul was widely expected to issue its verdicts at the end of Wednesday’s hearing. However, it adjourned the trial until April 3, citing a lack of time for all the defense statements.

Wednesday’s hearing was held a day after Turkish prosecutors ordered a prominent philanthropist, Osman Kavala, detained for alleged ties to a 2016 coup attempt, just hours after a court acquitted him on terrorism-related charges over anti-government protests in 2013. Human Rights Watch called the decision to re-arrest Kavala, who has already spent 840 days in prison, “vindictive and lawless.”

Ten activists — including Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi — were detained in a police raid in July 2017, while attending a digital security training workshop on Buyukada island, off Istanbul. The 11th activist, Amnesty’s former Turkey chairman, Taner Kilic, was detained separately a month earlier in the city of Izmir. All of the defendants have since been released pending a verdict in the trial.

Ten defendants were charged with aiding terrorist organizations, including the network led by a U.S.-based cleric, which the Turkish government blames for the 2016 coup attempt and has designated as a terror group.

Kilic is accused of membership in cleric Fethullah Gulen’s network. The accusation was based on his alleged use of an encrypted mobile messaging application. Officials say the application,ByLock, was used by members of Gulen’s network to communicate with each other. Gulen denies allegations that he engineered the coup attempt.

All 11 defendants have rejected the accusations against them.

Kilic told court that there was no evidence to back claims that he had used the encrypted messaging application.

“I request my acquittal,” Amnesty International quoted Kilic as saying.

Turkey has arrested some 77,000 people and has dismissed around 130,000 others from state jobs since the coup. The crackdown was initially launched to deal with the alleged coup-plotters, but critics say it was expanded to include other government opponents, including human rights defenders.

The activists’ trial coincided with the release of a stinging report by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, urging Turkish authorities to respect the independence of the judiciary, and to stop targeting human rights defenders, whom she said were being prosecuted for conducting “legitimate activities.”

Separately, Mijatovic also criticized philanthropist Kavala’s new arrest saying the new charges brought against him had “no credibility” and amounted “to ill-treatment.”

“I call on the Turkish judiciary and the Council of Judges and Prosecutors to assume their responsibility, by not giving a judicial confirmation to such abuses of criminal proceedings, and by reigning in such prosecutors,” she said.

The European Union also criticized the decision against Kavala saying it “further damages the credibility of Turkey’s judiciary.”

“As a candidate country and long-standing member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is expected to apply the highest democratic standards and practices, including the right to a fair trial,” said Peter Stano, spokesman for the European Commission’s external affairs service.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday appeared to approve of Kavala’s re-arrest, denouncing “attempts to acquit him” and urging respect for the new detention warrant.

He described the 2013 anti-government protests as being a “heinous attack similar to military coups, ultimatums and terrorism” that allegedly cost the country billions of dollars.

Erdogan accused Kavala of being the “Turkish leg” of billionaire U.S. philanthropist George Soros, whom the Turkish leader alleged was behind insurrections in many countries.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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