Long-term detentions of Human Rights Defenders in Turkey (Joint Communication)

On 20 May 2021, I wrote a joint communication to the Government of Turkey, jointly with seven other mandate holders, about the long-term detention of human rights defenders in the country. I raised the cases of 22 human rights defenders detained, sentenced or at risk of serving 10 years or more in prison.

They are: Ms. Ebru Timtik, Mr. Aytaç Ünsal, Mr. Özgür Yılmaz, Mr. Behiç Aşçı, Ms. Şükriye Erden, Mr. Engin Gökoğlu, Mr. Süleyman Gökten, Ms. Barkın Timtik, Mr. Selçuk Kozağaçlı, Ms. Oya Aslan, Mr. Günay Dağ, Mr. Osman Kavala, Ms. Eren Keskin, Mr. Mehmet Tuncel, Mr. Abuzer Yavas, Ms. Vetha Aydin, Ms. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, Mr. Erol Önderoğlu, Mr. Fevzi Kayacan, Mr. Turan Canpolat, Mr. Feti Ün, and Mr. Talip Nayir.

In the communication, we expressed concern about what appears to be a pattern of widespread long-term detention of human rights defenders for their legitimate work. Anti-terror law appears to be have been mis-used since the failed military coup in 2016, to criminalise the work of HRDs. Its vague wording leaves it open to being abuse to target those who voice dissent against the Government.

We also expressed concern at the targeting of two non-governmental, non-political, civil society organisations, namely the ÇHD and the İHD, whose work was vital in advocating for the right to life, the right to fair trial, women’s rights, civilians’ rights, and monitoring of human rights violations. The targeting of these human rights organisations has had a chilling effect on civil society in Turkey, and is aimed to silence the voices of dissent. It has consequently deterred many human rights defenders from carrying out their essential human rights work.

This is a shorter version of the original communication. The Government has responded to this communication.

Read the full communication Read the Government's response

Thirteen human rights defenders currently serving prison sentences of 10 years or more, and one human rights defender died in custody, in connection to the defence of human rights and/or their work as human rights lawyers.

The cases of Ms. Ebru Timtik, Ms. Barkin Timtik, Mr. Aytaç Ünsal,Mr. Özgür Yılmaz, Mr. Behiç Aşçı, Ms. Şükriye Erden, Mr. Engin Gökoğlu,Mr. Süleyman Gökten, and Mr. Selçuk Kozağaçlı.

Ms. Ebru Timtik, Ms. Barkin Timtik, Mr. Ünsal, Mr. Yılmaz, Mr. Aşçı, Ms. Erden, Mr. Gökoğlu, Mr. Gökten, and Mr. Kozağaçlı, are human rights defenders and members of Progressive Lawyers’ Association (Çağdaş Hukukçular Derneği – ÇHD), which was dissolved by governmental decree on 22 November 2016. As prominent human rights lawyers and members of ÇHD, they have represented victims of the Soma and Ermenek mining massacres, victims of forced re-locations, victims of police violence and torture, victims of other human rights violations, human rights defenders, and citizens being prosecuted for expressing their opinions and individuals who have been suspected of or convicted of terrorist activities.

According to the information received:

In 2013, Mr. Kozağaçlı, Ms. Barkin Timtik, Ms. Ebru Timtik, Mr. Yılmaz and Ms. Erden were accused of “support, membership and leadership of a terrorist organisation (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party DHKP/C)” in a trial known as ÇHD trial I. [1] Mr. Kozağaçlı, Ms. Barkin Timtik, Ms. Ebru Timtik, and Ms. Erden were arrested on 21 January 2013. Mr. Kozağaçlı, Ms. Barkin Timtik, Ms. Ebru Timtik, were detained and deprived of their liberty for one year and three months, and released on 21 March 2014. Ms. Erden was released on 23 December 2013, after spending almost one year in detention. Mr. Yılmaz was never detained in relation to this case, and his arrest warrant was cancelled upon his colleague’s release in 2014. CHD trial I has been pending in court since 2013.

On 12 September 2017, police arrested Ms. Ebru Timtik, Ms. Barkin Timtik, Mr. Ünsal, Mr. Yılmaz, Mr. Aşçı, Ms. Erden, Mr. Gökoğlu, and Mr. Gökten at the premises of the People’s Law Office. On 13 November 2017, Mr. Kozağaçlı, chair of ÇHD, was arrested. On 14 September 2018, all the above-mentioned lawyers were released, however, within 24 hours, the Istanbul 37th Heavy Penal Court ordered their re-detention, and Mr. Ünsal, Mr. Aşçı, Mr. Gökoğlu,
Mr. Gökten and Mr. Kozağaçlı were re-arrested the same day. The four other human rights defenders remained as fugitives until they were re-arrested between February and June 2019.

On 20 September 2017, all nine above-mentioned human rights defenders were formally accused of “membership of a terrorist organisation (DHKP-C)” This trial, known as ÇHD trial II, opened in autumn 2018. On 20 and 21 March 2019, the Istanbul 37th Heavy Penal Court sentenced the nine human rights defenders to between three and eighteen years in prison under terrorism-related charges. The Istanbul Regional Court of Appeals upheld this decision on 8 October 2019, without permitting them the opportunity of attending an oral hearing.

During ÇHD trial I and II, concerns were raised regarding the impartiality of the proceedings and the defendants’ right to a fair and free trial. Many irregularities have been reported during the judicial process of both trials, including violation of the defendants’ rights to independent and impartial trials, the right to participate effectively in the proceedings, the right to defence, including one’s own defence, the right not to be tried or punished for the same charge twice, the right to publicity of one’s trial, the right to examine witnesses, and the right to be informed of the accusations upon one’s arrest, which are all elements of the fair trial standards under international law.

To demand fair trials for themselves and their colleagues, and in protest against the administration of justice in Turkey, Ms. Ebru Timtik and Mr. Ünsal engaged in an open-ended hunger strike, which developed into an indefinite death fast by 5 April 2020. On 27 August 2020, after 238 days of hunger strike, Ms. Ebru Timtik died in custody, weighing just 65 pounds. Due to the deterioration of his health, Mr. Ünsal’s sentence was suspended and he was released until 9 December 2020, when he was re-arrested for allegedly breaching the conditions of the suspension. Despite his critical health condition, Mr. Ünsal was allegedly subjected to ill-treatment upon his re-detention; he suffers from intense hunger, pains in his legs, and is not receiving the appropriate medication.

On 15 December 2020, the Court of Cassation of Turkey announced its decision to uphold the sentences of seven of the human rights lawyers and convicted them of “membership of a ‘an armed’ terrorist organisation”, under article 7 of the Anti-Terror Code (ATC) article 314 of Turkish Penal Code (TPC). Mr. Ünsal was sentenced to 10 years and six months; Mr. Yılmaz was sentenced to 13 years and 6 months, Mr. Aşçı, was sentenced to 12 years, Ms. Erden was sentenced to 12 years, Mr. Gökoğlu was sentenced to 10 years and 6 months, and Mr. Gökten was sentenced to 10 years and 6 months.

The Court of Cassation also decided to overturn the lower court’s decision and to re-evaluate Ms. Barkin Timtik’s sentence of 18 years and 9 months and Mr. Kozağaçlı’s 11 years and 3-month sentence in conjunction with the identical terrorist related charges that are still pending against in them in ÇHD trial I in the 18th Penal Court. They remain in detention pending their next hearing. The court did not find a legal basis to convict Ms. Ebru Timtik who had died during the judicial proceedings, and both cases against her were dropped.

On delivering its verdict, the court stated that the human rights lawyers were not criminalised for representing members of “terrorist groups” but “were guilty for protecting terrorist organisations and its members in a manner that exceeded their right to defence”.   

Ms. Barkin Timtik, Mr. Kozağaçlı and Mr. Aşçı are currently detained in Silivri Prison no.1, a high security “isolation” prison, and it has been reported that there are issues concerning visitation rights, communication and access to books and magazines. Mr. Yılmaz and Mr. Gökten are detained at Tekirdağ no. 1 type F prison and Mr. Gökoğlu is serving his sentence at Tekirdağ no.1 type T prison. Mr. Ünsal is currently detained at Edirne no. 1 type F prison. All of these detention facilities are high security prisons in which the human rights defenders are experiencing issues with communication and visitation. Ms. Erden remains as a fugitive since her release on 14 September 2018.

The case of Mr. Osman Kavala

Mr. Osman Kavala is a human rights defender who has been at the forefront of civil society activities in Turkey since the 1990’s. He is the head of the not-for-profit Anadolu Kültür, whose members are active in the fields of arts, business, and civil society to promote and defend the right to cultural diversity in Turkey. Mr. Kavala is a member of many other civil society organisations such as the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (Türkiye Ekonomik ve Sosyal Etüdler Vakfı – TESEV), Diyarbakır Political and Social Research Institute (Diyarbakır Siyasal ve Sosyal Araştırmalar Enstitüsü – DİSA), Open Society Foundation (Açık Toplum Vakfı), History Foundation (Tarih Vakfı), and Turkish Cinema and Audiovisual Culture Foundation (Türkiye Sinema ve Audiovisuel Kültür Vakfı – TÜRSAK). 

Mr. Kavala has allegedly been deprived of liberty and right to a fair and free trial for over three and a half years. Mr. Kavala was arrested on 18 October 2017 at Ataturk Airport and remanded in custody for seven days. During his first hearing on 25 October 2017, no formal charges were pressed against him, and his pre-trial detention was extended for a further seven days period. It is alleged that by extending Mr. Kavala’s detention, the judicial administration, including judges and prosecutors have abused the rule of law and arbitrarily deprived him of his liberty.

On 18 February 2020, after six court hearings and two years of pre-trial detention, the 30th Heavy Penal Court in Istanbul acquitted and released Osman Kavala and the eight other defendants in the Gezi Park Trial on account of insufficient evidence. Hours after this verdict was announced, Mr. Kavala was re-detained and charged with “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”, for his supposed involvement in the 2016 coup attempt. The next day, the 8th Criminal Court of Peace of Istanbul announced his formal arrest.

Despite the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) December 2019 ruling that declared the detention of Mr. Kavala as arbitrary, and called for his unconditional release, judicial proceedings against the human rights defender are ongoing and he remains in the detention of the Turkish authorities.

On 22 January 2021, the 3rd Penal Chamber of Istanbul Regional Appeals Court overturned the acquittal of Mr. Kavala and the eight other human rights defenders in the Gezi Park Trial, and requested to combine the charges against Mr. Kavala with the charges of “espionage and attempt to overthrow the constitutional order” he faces in relation to the 2016 military coup. On
5 February 2021, the Istanbul 26th Assize Court granted this request and merged the two cases together. A hearing into this newly formed case will take place on 21 May 2021. On 6 February 2020, the prosecutor in the Gezi Park Trial requested to the 30th Heavy Penal Court that Mr. Kavala be handed down a life sentence without parole. The charge of “political and military espionage” under article 328 of the Turkish Penal Code (TPC) and “attempt to overthrow the constitutional order” under article 309 of the TPC. Both carry the penalty of life imprisonment. 

The case of Mr. Fevzi Kayacan

Mr. Kayacan is a human rights defender and lawyer, and former president of the Konya Bar Association from 2010 to 2016. As a human rights defender and lawyer, Mr. Kayacan is a staunch advocate for human rights and democracy.

According to information received:

Mr. Kayacan has been deprived of liberty since his arrest on 21July 2016, five days after the failed coup attempt. He spent 15 months in pre-trial detention due to his alleged links to the Gülen movement. On 27 October 2018, Konya 6th High Assize Court convicted Mr. Kayacan of being a member of the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) under Article 314 (2) of the TPC and sentenced him to 10 years and 6 months imprisonment. Despite no concrete evidence linking Mr. Kayacan to the Gülen movement, sources report that he was convicted for his affiliations and social contacts in civil society and his role as a prominent human rights lawyer.

Mr. Kayacan is currently serving his sentence in Ankara Sincan Penitentiaries Campus. His appeal is pending before the Supreme Court Appeal (YARGITAY). Mr. Kayacan had access to his lawyer during his judicial process. While in prison, the human rights defender’s ability to meet his lawyer was restricted due to the state of emergency, overcrowding in prisons and the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns have been raised over the health condition of Mr. Kayacan in prison; he is currently held in an overcrowded cell, and had recently suffered serious health conditions from gastric bleeding.

The case of Mr. Feti Ün

Mr. Ün is a prominent human rights lawyer and is over 70 years old. Between 1990 and 1994, Mr Ün represented Fethullah Gülen, defacto leader of the Gülen movement and political opponent of President Erdogan.

According to information received:

Mr. Ün has been denied of liberty for almost five years. He was arrested shortly after the failed coup attempt and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on 20 November 2017, after spending almost one year in pre-trial detention. The 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision to convict Mr. Ün under article 314 (2) of the TPC.

Mr. Ün had access to his lawyer during his judicial process, however once imprisoned, he did not have access to a computer which meant he could not effectively prepare his defence. Due to the state of emergency, overcrowding and the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Ün has had restricted contact with his lawyer. Currently, Mr. Ün is detained in solitary confinement in Denizli T Type Closed Prison.

The case of Mr. Talip Nayir

Mr. Nayir is a human rights lawyer and member of the Erzincan Bar. During his career, he fought for ensuring access to fair trial and represented many victims of human rights violations, arbitrary arrests and torture, as well as raising awareness on human rights and advocating for an end to discrimination in Turkey.

According to information received:

On 27 August 2016, Mr. Nayir was arrested as part of the Erzincan Chief Public Prosecutor’s alleged widespread crackdown on lawyers with links to the Gülen movement. On 30 May 2017, Mr. Nayir was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of “membership of ‘an armed’ terrorist organisation”, under article 315 (2) of the TPC. The evidence supporting these charges is reportedly based on his use of the encrypted messenger app ByLock, the content of his social media posts, and the alleged associations and affiliations of his clients with the Gülen movement.

As of the date of this communication, Mr. Nayir has been deprived of liberty for 4 years and 9 months, and is still under arrest and serving his sentence.
Mr. Nayir was given access to his lawyer during his judicial process. This legal access was restricted when he was detained, due to the state of emergency, overcrowding in prisons and the pandemic. It is of particular concern that
Mr. Nayir is reported to be held in an overcrowded cell in Gümüşhane Prison House, in northeastern Turkey.

The case of Mr. Turan Canpolat

Mr. Canpolat is a human rights defender and member of the Malatya Bar Association of Turkey. His career as a defence lawyer spanned a vast 21 years, during which he represented victims of human rights violations, including those who were denied the right to a fair trial.

According to information received:

Mr. Canpolat has been deprived of liberty for over five years. He was arrested on 30 January 2016 while the police were searching the house of one of his clients. When Mr. Canpolat arrived at the police station to assist his client, he was detained based on incriminating statements given by his client, claiming that he was a member of the Gülen movement. During the course of the trial, Mr. Canpolat’s client admitted that these statements were made against his will. According to the source, the police manipulated the arrest warrant to include Mr. Canpolat and forged the date to make it appear as if it had been issued before his arrest. On 20 November 2017, Mr. Canpolat was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment under terrorist related articles of the TPC, for representing those with alleged affiliations with the Gülen movement, representing companies that were shut down during the emergency decree, and for using the encrypted messenger app ByLock.

Mr. Canpolat was placed in solitary confinement in Malatya prison after his sentencing, where he has remained since due to the alleged high risk of him escaping. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Canpolat has been denied visitors. He has submitted over 14 separate applications requesting his release to the Turkish Court of Cassation, which have gone unanswered to date. At the time of writing, Mr. Canpolat is detained in solitary confinement in Elazığ Type Closed Prison.

Eight human rights defenders who are awaiting trial and are at risk of being sentenced to 10 years or more in prison

The case of Ms. Oya Aslan and Mr. Günay Dağ

Ms. Aslan and Mr. Dağ are both human rights defenders and members of ÇHD. As prominent human rights lawyers, they have represented victims of human rights violations and advocate for transparency and equality in the Turkish judicial system.

According to information received:

Ms. Aslan and Mr. Dağ are both defendants of ÇHD trial I and II alongside their imprisoned ÇHD colleagues. Mr. Dağ was arrested with the above mentioned ÇHD colleagues on 21 January 2013, deprived of his liberty for one year and three months and released on 21 March 2014, and has been a fugitive since.
Ms. Aslan was not arrested in relation to this case. The trial has been ongoing since 2013, and both human rights defenders are accused of support, membership and leadership of a terrorist organisation (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party DHKP/C), which carries sanctions of 10 years or more according to the TPC.

When the 37th Heavy Penal Court announced its verdict of the ÇHD trial II on 20 March 2019, the cases of Ms. Aslan and Mr. Dağ were separated from their colleagues due to their status as fugitives.

Ms. Aslan was re-arrested in December 2019 and her case is pending trial at the 37th Heavy Penal Court for membership of a terrorist organisation. According to sources, Ms. Aslan is currently detained at Silivri prison no. 1, she has allegedly been subjected to torture and her visitation rights have been restricted. Ms. Aslan’s next hearing will take place on 15 September 2021, in which she faces a possible sentence of over 10 years imprisonment.

Mr. Dağ is currently in exile and awaiting the completion of his refugee application. He is on trial in absentia in the same case pending trial at the 37th Heavy Penal Court as Ms. Aslan.

The cases of Mr. Mehmet Tuncel and Abuzer Yavas      

Both Mr. Tuncel and Mr. Yavas are human rights defenders and members of the Human Rights Association/İnsan Haklari Derneği(İHD), a non-governmental organisation founded in 1986 with branches throughout Turkey. The İHD work on issues such as prisoners’ rights, alleged instances of torture, the promotion of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue and general human rights education.

 According to information received:

Both human rights defenders were arrested on 24 January 2018 and an investigation was launched by Malatya Chief public Prosecutor’s office on allegations relating to some social media posts they issued. When it was made public that Mr. Yavas did not have a social media account, new accusations were brought against him and Mr. Tuncel, this time in relation to their alleged attendance at a militant’s funeral in 2001. Mr. Yavas and Mr. Tuncel face the charges of “membership of a terrorist group” under article 7 of the antiterrorism law, and article 314(2), 53, 58(9) and 63 of the TPC, and “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” under article 7 (2) and 5 of the ATC, crimes which are sanctioned with five to ten years imprisonment.

Mr. Tuncel was released from Malatya E-type prison on 20 February 2018, after spending a month in detention. On 7 May 2019, Malatya 1st Heavy Penal Court ruled for Mr. Tuncel’s acquittal for propaganda charges, and sentenced him to 6 years and 3 months under article 314 (2) TPC. The Gaziantep Regional Court of Justice’s 4th Criminal Circuit court dismissed the appeal of the initial verdict, and the file is now pending before the Court of Cassation. If the original charges are reinstated, Mr. Tuncel could face over 10 years in prison.

At the date of writing, sources could not confirm if Mr. Yavas remains in prison or has been released, nor if the charges against him still stand.

The case of Ms. Vetha Aydin

Ms. Aydin is the President of İHD’s branch in the province of Siirt. She is an active member of İHD, and works to promote human rights in the country, on issues such as the right to life and enforced disappearances.

According to the information received:

Officers from the anti-terrorism unit reportedly arrested Ms. Aydin during an anti-terrorism operation on 16 March 2010. Upon arrest, Ms. Aydin was charged with “membership of an illegal organisation” under article 314 (2) of the TPC and article 7 (1) of the ATC. These charges are related to her participation in press conferences held by various NGOs and her senior role within İHD. Ms. Aydin was held in pre-trial detention for almost one year. She was released on 15 March 2011, but the charges against her are still pending before the Siirt 1st Heavy Penal Court. The next hearing will be held on 8 June 2021.

The case of Ms. Eren Keskin

Ms. Keskin is a long-standing human rights defender, human rights lawyer and civil society figure in Turkey. She is the founder of Gözaltında Cinsel Taciz ve Tecavüze Karşı Hukuki Yardım Bürosu (Legal Aid Bureau against Sexual Harassment and Rape in Custody) and the co-chair of the Human Rights Association in Turkey.

Ms. Keskin acted as the chief editor of Özgür Gündem newspaper between 2014 and 2015, which reported extensively on the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and Kurdish minority rights. Ms. Keskin is also a member of and former president of the Istanbul branch of the İHD.

According to information received:

Since 2005, Ms. Keskin has been the subject of various legal proceedings in relation to her human rights work. There are currently 143 criminal cases filed against her in Turkish courts, relating to terrorism, propaganda and national security charges, with sentences adding up to 17.5 in prison if the Court of Appeals uphold her convictions.

On 30 March 2018, the Istanbul 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance sentenced Ms. Keskin to 7.5 years in prison as a result of her participation in the solidarity campaign with newspaper Özgür Gündem,which was closed by Government decree in 2016. Ms. Keskin and the eight other defendants were charged with “degrading the Turkish nation, the Republic, institutions and organs of the state” under article 301 of the TPC, and “insulting the President of the Republic of Turkey” under article 299 of the TPC. This case is pending in the Court of Appeals.

On 21 May 2019, the Istanbul 14th Heavy Penal Court convicted Eren Keskin of “propagandising for a terrorist organisation” under article 7(2) of the anti-terror law. The charge against her was related to her work as chief-editor of the Özgür Gündem. Ms. Keskin was sentenced to 3 years and 9 months in prison. The charges still stand as the case is pending in the Court of Appeals.

On 15 February 2021, the Istanbul 23rd Heavy Penal Court sentenced
Ms. Keskin to six years and three months in prison as part of the Özgür Gündem main trial for her alleged “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” under article 314 of the TPC. Ms. Keskin remains free pending her appeal.

The case of Mr. Erol Önderoğlu and Ms. Şebnem Korur Fincancı

Mr. Önderoğlu is a dual French-Turkish national, human rights defender and correspondent of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Turkey. He is also the editor of a Turkish website called Bianet, which covers political, social and cultural affairs with a particular focus on human rights and fundamental freedoms, including women’s rights, in Turkey.

Ms. Fincancı is the President and founding member of the Turkish Medical Association and Board Member of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey documents cases of torture, provides rehabilitation and legal assistance to victims of human rights violations and torture. As founding member of the Turkish Medical Association, Ms. Fincancı has assisted in developing the Istanbul Protocol; the United Nations reference standards on the investigation and documentation of the cases of torture. Ms. Fincancı has been at the forefront of defending human rights in Turkey and has conducted investigations into and uncovered incidents of torture in many countries.

According to information received:

On 20 June 2016, Mr. Önderoğlu and Ms. Fincancı, alongside one other colleague, were detained because of their alleged involvement in the propaganda of terrorism. Their arrest came after a ruling by the 1st High Court of Peace in Istanbul. At this first hearing, the human rights defenders were questioned in relation to their participation and editorial role in the freedom of expression and solidarity campaign with the Özgür Gündem newspaper. The human rights defenders were accused of “inciting the committing of crimes,” “praising crime and criminals” and “conducting propaganda for a terrorist organization”, punishable under article 214 and article 215/1 of the TPC and article 7/2 of the Turkish Law on the Fight Against Terrorism.

On 17 July 2019, the court acquitted Mr. Önderoğlu, Ms. Fincancı and their colleague, based on lack of substantial evidence linking them to the publications in question. On 3 November 2020, the Istanbul Regional Court of Appeal overturned the human rights defenders’ acquittal. The retrial of Mr. Önderoğlu and Ms. Fincancı’s case began on 3 February 2021 in which they face possible convictions of up to 14 years imprisonment.

[1] https://cagdashukukcular.org/genel/5437


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