Information Note: Human rights defenders held in custody and the activities they engaged in

Representatives from various human rights organizations gathered for a five-day workshop on the island of Buyukada, Istanbul, on Sunday 2nd July 2017. Their aim was to exchange knowledge and experience about defending human rights under difficult circumstances to make it more reliable, sound and effective. On Wednesday 5 July around 10 a.m. police raided the workshop allegedly acting on a tip-off and detained the human rights defenders participating. They are: Veli Acu, Özlem Dalkıran, Nalan Erkem, İdil Eser, Ali Gharavi, Günal Kurşun, Şeyhmus Özbekli, Peter Steudtner, Nejat Taştan and İlknur Üstün.

What follows is a summary of what occurred during the initial period of custody:

  • During the raid the police did not follow a proper procedure to determine the content (images) of devices such as computers and mobile phones which they subsequently seized
  • Police informed no one about the custody of human rights defenders and did not let them speak to their relatives and lawyers.
  • It was revealed on the evening 5 July by coincidence that they had been taken into custody. The custody report records the time as 14:30.
  • It was announced that towards midnight they were sent in groups of two to different police stations on the Anatolian side, though exactly where they were held was not revealed.
  • On Thursday 6 July, after 30 hours of having been taken into custody, they were finally permitted to notify their relatives about the situation.
  • The crime for which the defenders were being investigated and where those apart from the two foreigners were held was only revealed at this point.
  • Due to a restriction of access to the case file, lawyers were unable to obtain verbal or written information in police stations about the accusations against their clients and were only able to learn that it was a terrorism investigation from the reports the police prepared recording their visits.
  • The custody period was defined as 7 days that started by 14:30 on 5 July according to official records (and has been extended for a further 7 days on July 11).
  • There is still a restriction on the investigation file. Hence, it is unclear upon what accusations and evidence the investigation is based and on what grounds the human rights defenders were taken into custody.

Despite the confidentiality verdict on the file, an irresponsible smear campaign is being run in social and mainstream media against those in custody, in violation of the principle of presumption of innocence. A couple of media outlets are repeatedly accusing human rights defenders, who have carried out all their work legitimately, lawfully and publicly for years on totally untrue and unsubstantiated grounds of ‘‘spying’’ and participating in a secret gathering to conspire against the government.

This information note is prepared to explain the background, aims and participation profile of this complete legitimate and lawful workshop.

Background and Reasons for holding the Workshop: At the regular, annual exchange and planning meeting of the Human Rights Joint Platform (IHOP) — founded in common by the Human Rights Association, Amnesty International Turkey and Citizens’ Assembly — held in Antalya on 7–9 April 2017, it was decided to organize a series of training seminars to support human rights defenders. Workshops and publications to support the defense of human rights are carried out in Turkey just as they are throughout the world.

Efforts to increase the capacity of human rights defenders in terms of practice, communication and information security are widespread not only in Turkey but all over the world. In our age of rapid and intensive communication, quality, reliability and security of work are gaining increasing importance in all work sectors.

It is in such a context, human rights defenders follow core principle of remaining alert to untruthful and manipulative information and news and seeking to develop their competence in this area, and as well as to conduct their work in sound, reliable and effective ways. Human rights organizations are also responsible for ensuring the confidentiality of personal, sensitive information about the people they work with and defend (from refugees to women subjected to violence, from children subjected to abuse to victims of torture). This aspect of their work obliges them to be cautious about the threats and risks of the digital world. Furthermore, people and institutions active in the area of human rights area work on training and capacity improvement to ensure their output, reports and statements are reliable and secure. The Buyukada workshop was planned to support human rights work and protect and maintain the security of right defenders and those whose rights they defend under worsening conditions.

In Turkey, digital security has been improved in the area of protection of consumer rights. The needs of rights-based organizations are somewhat different to those of consumers. Rights-based organizations require a more holistic approach, from the security of web and communication in the age of digital communication to the safety of individual human rights defender. This holistic approach informs capacity improvement initiatives all over the world within all parts of civil society including human rights organizations as well as public institutions that serve sensitive or vulnerable groups.

Indeed, the Turkish government presented the Draft Law of the Protection of Personal Data to the Turkish parliament in 2016 with the aim of protecting against risks that present day technology might pose to digital security and data confidentiality. The draft became law on 24 March 2016. The explanation for the law, in parallel with raising awareness of human rights, emphasized protection against the risk of data being abused. Hence, it is to be expected that civil society organizations take measures to ensure their security against risks which both private and public institutions are concerned with and take measures against.

The Process of Organization of the Workshop: Preparations for the workshop got started two weeks after from the April IHOP meeting. The workshop was conducted according to the laws and regulations relevant to a meeting in which participants are determined by invitation. Preparations were carried out by volunteers with the prior knowledge of the groups who participated in the IHOP meeting and adhering to the plan discussed at that meeting.

Accordingly there was a consideration of who the competent and reliable candidates would be to act as r consultants and to facilitate workshops. Frontline Defenders, active in this area, was one group consulted on this alongside experienced, respected and independent experts and advisors active in various reputable organizations.

In light of these evaluations, for the facilitator position, it was decided to collaborate with Ali Gharavi, well known by Citizens’ Assembly due to his engagement in New Tactics in Human Rights Struggle project Citizens’ Assembly implemented between 2000–2004 (the organization was called at the time Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-HCA) and because he was available. Peter Steudtner was also chosen due to his sound experience on teaching techniques to combat stress in hard times. Among these two experts, whose detailed CV’s are attached, Ali Gharavi contributed as the Information Technology (IT) expert within the core team that organized the International Symposium of New Tactics in Human Rights Struggle –a symposium that was realized in partnership by Center for Victims and HCA in Ankara in 2004 and was co-founded of USD 300.000 by Turkish Republic Prime Minister’s Office Presentation Fund. Gharavi and Steudtner were chosen to collaborate in facilitating the 5-day workshop to deal with interrelated topics holistically and to include training people to be trainers in the different issues covered. Steudtner has collaborated with rights organizations in Palestine, Angola and Mozambique in the area of non-violence and safety for human rights defenders and activities. As their biographical information shows, Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner are acknowledged human rights defenders who are experts at facilitating workshops of this kind as facilitators. Their core working principles can be summarized as follows: Respect for human rights, commitment to non-violence and a “Do No Harm” approach; to facilitate but not to direct in any way the agenda of the human rights defenders and organizations they support; to fully comply with the laws of the institutions, activities and countries in which they work.

Final Participants: The workshop was primarily planned for participants of institutions which are founders or current members of IHOP. Upon clarifying those who would attend and those who would not, a small number of participants from various other non-governmental organizations active in rights area were also invited.

Lawyer, Nalan Erkem and Özlem Dalkıran (the latter being at the same time the founder and one of the former coordinators of Amnesty International Turkey) from Citizens’ Assembly, one of Turkey’s leading human rights organizations active in Turkey and internationally in the area of rights and liberties, peace, democratization and pluralism;

İlknur Üstün, coordinator of the Women’s Coalition, a platform made up of independent women’s organizations, as well as former coordinator of the European Women’s Lobby Turkey, who is well known for her studies and publications on gender equality;

İdil Eser, working professionally in civil society for many years and director of Amnesty International Turkey since 2016;

Günal Kurşun ve Veli Acu; executive board members of Human Rights Agenda Association that categorically reject violence in all forms;

Nejat Taştan, co-founder of Human Rights Foundation of Turkey and currently the coordinator of the Association for Monitoring Equal Rights which is active in monitoring and publishing reports to combat discrimination, improve respect for plurality and human rights and create a democratic society;

Şeyhmus Özbekli, formerly a member of Mazlum-Der and currently a trainee lawyer working in Diyarbakir within HAK Initiative (Rights Initiative), a human rights initiative recently set up.

Determination of the Date: Due to incompatibilities in participants’ own schedules and the Ramadan holiday, this workshop was postponed from its original date in June to the beginning of July. Because summer not being a convenient time for such an activity, and to avoid further postponing the date, the compromise was to hold it on 2–7 July.

Determination of the Location: The location was chosen in consideration of its affordability, ease in terms of transportation, and distance from the traffic and stress of Istanbul. Among many options like Bolu, Istanbul and Sile, Buyukada was chosen at the request of the participants.

Financial backing: Since the participating human rights groups do not have sufficient means of their own and because project-based resources cannot be used for out-of-project purposes, financial support was sought to cover the expenses of this workshop. The expert facilitators proposed to apply to HIVOS, an international development institution, and their proposition got accepted. HIVOS agreed to grant the necessary resource upon submission of the proper estimate of costs and on the condition that all receipts of expenditure would be provided.

First two days of the workshop: Over the first two days of the workshop, which was to be interrupted on the third day by the police raid, Peter Steudtner, a social psychologist, discussed the impact of the growing violence over the last two years on human rights defenders and possible ways for defenders to cope with it. Ali Gharavi addressed how to ensure web security of non-governmental organizations in the face of prevalent hate-based attacks to their websites.

This information note was prepared by the following human rights organisations.

Equal Rights Monitoring
Rights’ Initiative
Human Rights Association
Human Rights Agenda
Amnesty International Turkey Office
Citizens’ Assembly