Civil society activists arrested in Turkey

Lisa Goldman

Journalist, editor and policy analyst

Turkey arrests show that veteran NGOs have valuable knowledge to share about running a human rights campaign.

In an incident that is attracting high profile international media coverage, an Istanbul court ruled on July 18 that six out of the 10 civil society activists detained by police on July 5 should be remanded for trial, on charges of aiding armed terrorist groups.

Turkish police have detained and arrested tens of thousands of people over the past year, under the state of emergency laws that Erdogan imposed following the failed coup of July 15, 2016. They include teachers, academics, army officers, judges, and journalists. Turkey now has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world. Newspapers have been shut down and access to many websites and platforms is now blocked. But these latest arrests have achieved high international awareness for reasons that are relevant to activists and organisers.

The fact that one of the people arrested is the head of Amnesty International’s Turkey office is important: Amnesty immediately launched a campaign to have her released, including media outreach that resulted international coverage. The circumstances under which the activists were taken into custody also contributed to the publicity, because they were so anodyne — i.e., 10 people employed by well-known and credible civil society organizations taking a standard workshop in the essential skills they need to know in order to do their jobs. The fact that it ended with a police raid, jail and arrest on charges of being associated with terrorists is terrifyingly absurd.

According to Amnesty International, the six jailed activists are İdil Eser (head of Amnesty International’s Turkey office), Günal Kurşun (Human Rights Agenda Association), Özlem Dalkıran (Citizens’ Assembly), Veli Acu (Human Rights Agenda Association). The workshop trainers, who are both foreign nationals, were also arrested and remanded for trial. They are: Ali Gharavi, who is a Swedish national; and Peter Steudtner from Germany.

In addition, four of those detained at the workshop were released on bail but are still under investigation, their passports revoked. They are  İlknur Üstün  (Women’s Coalition), Şeyhmus Özbekli (Rights Initiative), Nejat Taştan (Equal Rights Watch Association), and Nalan Erkem (Citizens Assembly).

How to run a campaign

From the day police took the activists at the digital security workshop into custody, Amnesty launched a campaign to free them. And while the information about the activists is online, it is essentially a digital version of the same campaigns Amnesty International has been running for decades, since the pre-internet days. There is a digital petition to sign, a letter of protest to send by email and a page of information about the background of the people in jail as well as the circumstances under which they were detained.

Major media outlets like  Reuters, the AP, the BBC, the Times of London, the New York Times, and the Economist have covered the story from the first day, nearly all leading with or giving prominence to the name of İdil Eser and her position as Amnesty International’s Turkey office. This is noteworthy: Of the tens of thousands of Turks arrested over the past year, few have international name recognition. It would seem that Amnesty’s well-honed communications skills have played a significant role in raising awareness of this incident.

Amnesty has augmented their classic campaign techniques with smart social media techniques that appeal to journalists covering the story. Andrew Gardner, their Turkey researcher, live tweeted the court hearing in Istanbul, using forceful language and the hashtag #istanbul10, which includes a collage showing all the activists’ faces, so that they are humanized. Gardner also posed outside the courtroom for wire service photographers.

A year of emergency law

Since Erdogan and his followers successfully thwarted a coup attempt by Turkish army officers just over a year ago, on July 15, 2016, Turkey has been under emergency law. Under the guise of hunting down those who conspired to bring down Erdogan’s democratically elected government, security forces have relentlessly crushed civil society. Police have detained well over 100,000 people, with about half of them arrested on charges. Thousands more were fired from their jobs as teachers, academics and journalists.

This week, Erdogan celebrated the one year anniversary of the failed coup by forcing everyone who makes an outgoing phone call to listen to his triumphal recorded message. He also extended the emergency law period for another three months, and he gave a rousing speech, in which he expressed his desire to see the coup plotters appear in court wearing “uniform suits like in Guantanamo.” He also said he would like to “rip the heads off the traitors” and “crush them.”

Lessons from veteran human rights NGOs

Erdogan’s campaign against civil society is similar to the one waged by the Egyptian government after the 2011 uprising. In 2012 then-President Morsi initiated a campaign against several civil society NGOs, with the arrest and trial of various prominent figures. The Egyptian campaign to suppress civil society continues today under the Sisi government, with security forces blocking access to independent media online and arresting civil society activists. In neighboring Israel, the Netanyahu government is waging an ongoing war against NGOs. The pattern is repeated in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Duterte’s Philippines — in short, in a long and growing list of countries now shifting toward authoritarianism.

Civil society activists are looking for a way forward in countries where citizens who express criticism of the government run the risk of being detained indefinitely without charge — or worse. Raising international awareness is certainly not enough to keep activists out of jail in an authoritarian state. But the fact that Amnesty International managed to pluck the name of a single arrested Turkish citizen out of the tens of thousands languishing in jail and make it an important international news story is a hint that the veteran human rights organizations — the ones that have been fighting this fight since long before the people who invented social media were born — have something to teach us all about how to navigate the long, tough path ahead.


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