World News

Head of Amnesty International’s Turkey Office Freed From Turkish Prison

Posted January 31, 2018 3:45 p.m. EST

ISTANBUL — An Istanbul court on Wednesday ordered the release of Amnesty International’s top representative in Turkey, one of the most prominent political prisoners in the country detained under a widespread crackdown against government critics.

The court said prosecutors had failed to show why the defendant, Taner Kilic, chairman of Amnesty International Turkey, should remain incarcerated, even though terrorism charges against him have not been dropped.

Kilic was released after more than six months of imprisonment in Izmir, his hometown. He was accused of links to the outlawed movement of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile who is portrayed by the government as a terrorist.

The ruling was met with shouts of joy by supporters who hugged one another in the Istanbul courtroom, as Kilic was shown via videolink from Izmir.

“The reaction was just deep relief,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s Europe director, who was traveling to Izmir to meet Kilic in person.

Kilic was the last defendant to be released in a case against 11 human rights advocates who prosecutors said had links to Gulen’s organization. The others were released in October.

The case is still pending, however, and the defendants face potentially long prison sentences if convicted. The next hearing is in June.

Kilic was accused of having used an encrypted cellphone application called Bylock, which prosecutors have claimed was the favored mode of communication among members of the Gulen movement, who were accused of plotting a July 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The attempt failed, but more than 250 people were killed confronting tanks on the streets.

In the government crackdown that followed, tens of thousands of people were detained and accused of involvement in the coup attempt or of links or fealty to the Gulen movement. But the government has been accused of broadening the crackdown to imprison a wide range of political opponents and critics.

Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied involvement in the coup attempt and has accused Erdogan of orchestrating it as an excuse to seize more power.

Kilic’s case had become a symbol of the broader crackdown, Van Gulik said. The insistence by prosecutors that the representative of a prominent human rights advocacy group should be held with no evidence to explain why, she said, was “emblematic of how far this crackdown has gone.”

Kilic was released after the court accepted three expert reports that showed that he never had the Bylock application on his cellphone, said his lawyer, Murat Dincer. Despite the court’s repeated requests, the prosecution also failed to provide police reports showing that he did have the application, Van Gulik said.

Turkey has been under strong international pressure to release the thousands of detainees, including journalists, human rights activists and foreign citizens, who have languished in prison.

Germany accused Turkey of taking political hostages and threatened economic sanctions against Turkey last summer after the seizure of the human rights advocates, who included a German citizen, Peter Steudtner.

After the German threat, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said that while the government could not influence the judicial process, he had urged the courts to accelerate the process.