On 27 July 2021, I wrote a letter jointly with five other UN experts regarding the criminalisation of woman human rights defender Ms. Sevda Özbingöl Çelik, as well as the judicial harassment against human rights defender Mr. Cihan Aydın.
Ms. Sevda Özbingöl Çelik is a woman human rights defender and a lawyer from the Urfa Bar Association and a member of Urfa Bar’s Human Rights Centre and Women’s Rights Committee. She is also a member and recently-elected delegate of the Supreme Council of the Human Rights Association/ İnsan Haklari Derneği (İHD), a non-governmental organisation founded in 1986 that advocates for human rights in Turkey.
Mr. Cihan Aydın is a human rights defender and prominent human rights lawyer, known for his work representing victims of human rights violations in both domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights. He worked at Human Rights Association Diyarbakır Branch between 1998 and 2004. He worked in the Diyarbakır Bar Association Board in 2008-2014. He became the Chair of the Bar Association in October 2018 and continued as its chair until April 2021.
We reiterated our recommendation to the Turkish Government to review the Anti-Terror Law No. 3713 to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
Concerning Ms. Sevda Özbingöl Çelik
On 12 March 2020, Ms. Sevda Özbingöl Çelik’s house and office were searched as part of a widespread police operation carried out by law enforcement on the homes of Ms. Çelik and 12 of her colleagues. Following the search, Ms. Çelik was arrested and taken into custody and on 17 March 2020. She was formally charged with “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”. A warrant was issued authorizing the police to search Ms. Çelik’s house and office and to remand her in custody. Although the woman human rights defender was allowed access to lawyers of her own choosing, she and her lawyers were not given access to the case file until the indictment was issued.
During her interrogation, it is reported that Ms. Çelik was asked about her professional work and her relationship with clients based on a statement made against her by an anonymous witness, who allegedly claimed that Ms. Çelik enabled communication between alleged members of terrorist groups through her meetings with imprisoned clients as a lawyer, and that she herself was a
member of a terrorist organisation.
After her arrest, Ms. Çelik was held in pre-trial detention for 9 months. Initially she was given access to her lawyers, however after the first month she was not allowed to see her lawyers for the next three months. Similarly, family visits were also banned and she was only allowed one phone call to family per week. In addition, after her first court hearing and those subsequent, she was quarantined for a period of 15-24 days in an isolated cell, where prisoners condemned to life imprisonment are normally kept. As a result, she spent an estimated two and a half months in solitary confinement.
Ms. Çelik was released under judicial control, including an international travel ban. On 6 April 2021, Urfa’s Sixth Penal Court issued its final verdict and sentenced Ms. Çelik to 11 years and 6 months imprisonment, on the charges of “membership to a terrorist organisation” (Article 314/2 of the Turkish Criminal Code), “violating the Law no. 2911 on Assemblies and Meetings” (Article 28 of the Law no. 2911), and “terrorist propaganda” (Article 7/2 of Anti-Terror Law).
The verdict is reported to be based on Ms. Çelik’s involvement in peaceful assemblies between 2013 and 2017, in which she advocated for women’s rights, prisoner’s rights and accountability for the killing of civilians. The court also made reference to her meetings with clients as a lawyer, her social media posts, and membership of human rights organisations with alleged terrorist cells. While the judicial control measures and travel ban imposed on her remain, Ms. Çelik remains free until her case is heard by the court of appeal. If the conviction against her is upheld, she will be ordered to serve her sentence and her licence to practice as a lawyer will be terminated.
Concerning Mr. Cihan Aydın
Two separate criminal investigations were launched against the Diyarbakır Bar Association, including Mr. Aydın, in response to statements issued by the association on 24 April 2019 and 24 April 2020 relating to the crimes against the Armenian people. Diyarbakır Bar Association challenged the first
investigation before the Court of Appeals and the procedure is pending. As to the second investigation into the statement made 24 April 2020, no decision has been taken yet.
Furthermore, the Head of Religious Directorate delivered hateful statements against LGBTİ individuals in his sermon on 24 April 2020, after which the Diyarbakır Bar Association issued a statement against this hate speech. An investigation was launched against the Chair and the members of the Board of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, including Mr. Aydın, for allegedly insulting the religious values under article 216 of the Criminal Code. This investigation is still pending.
In September 2020, Mr. Aydın was accused of “membership of a terrorist organisation” under article 314 of the Turkish Criminal Code, punishable by 5-15 years imprisonment. This charge is in relation to his leading role in the Diyarbakır Bar Association at the time, in particular to press releases published by the association as well as peaceful gatherings he attended. On 9 September 2020, the human rights lawyer gave a statement to the prosecutor’s office, during which he was accompanied by his lawyer. No further information about this investigation has been provided thus far.
In additional, on 3 May 2021, Mr. Aydın was informed by the prosecutor’s office that he was the subject of a criminal investigation. On 26 May 2021, he was asked to give a statement about the accusations of “propaganda for terrorism” against him. The charges against him are allegedly related to a statement made by the Women Rights Centre of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, which called for the end of the Turkish military action in Syria and urged for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Mr. Aydın was given full access to his lawyer and the case files once the judicial process against him began.
If convicted under article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law, Mr. Aydın may be sentenced to up to 7.5 years imprisonment. At the time of writing, there have been no further updates on any developments in the investigation.
In the communication, we expressed our concern that the criminal cases against the two human rights defenders appears to be related to their human rights work as human rights lawyers and their membership of the human rights organisations. The charges would fall into a wider pattern of misuse of anti-terror legislation to restrict civil society and silence defenders by sentencing them to long terms in prison.
This is a shorter version of the original communication. The Government has responded to the communication, disputing the nature of the work of the human rights defenders, which it conflates with terrorism.