The detention of a group of human rights defenders in Turkey for daring to learn about digital security and encryption continued last week with a brief appearance of the accused in an Istanbul court. Six were returned to jail, and four released on bail. In an additionally absurd twist, the four released activists were named in new detention orders on Friday, and are now being re-arrested.
Among those currently being held in jail are Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner, digital security trainers from Sweden and Germany, who had traveled to Turkey to provide online privacy advice for a conference of human rights defenders. The meeting was raided by Turkish police on July 5, and appears to be the sole basis for the prosecution.
The court charged Gharavi and Steudtner with "committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member." Their co-defendants include Idil Eser, the Director of Amnesty Turkey, Veli Acu and Günal Kurşun of the Human Rights Agenda Association, and Özlem Dalkıran of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. Four others were released on bail, but new detention orders against them were announced on Friday, with two re-arrested over the weekend.
Gharavi and Steudtner have worked for many years in the global human rights community, providing advice about digital security and online well-being. Ali helped EFF with its Surveillance Self-Defence Guides, and has held key technology roles at the Center for Victims of Torture and Tactical Tech. Steudtner's expertise was in holistic security, which combined technical training with his pacifist, non-violent principles.
When asked about the arrests, Turkey's President Recep Tayipp Erdogan said that the group had "gathered for a meeting which was a continuation of July 15," referencing the date of the attempted coup against him in 2016. The government has used the coup as a justification for the subsequent mass arrests of over 50,000 people including journalists, academics, judges and, most recently, technologists.
Strong digital security helps everyone; learning about encryption is not a sign of criminal activity. The Turkish authorities and media have continued, nonetheless, to tie the use of secure communications tools to the coup. A report in the conservative Islamist paper Yeni Akit declared that the detainees had secret government documents, and used the mobile communications app "ByLock" to stay in contact with groups connected to the coup. ByLock is a known insecure app that is largely unknown outside of Turkey and has been widely criticised by digital security experts. It is profoundly unlikely that Gharavi or Steudtner used it. Use of ByLock was also the sole reason the Turkish police gave for the arrest of Amnesty's Chair, Taner Kiliç, last month.
The condemnation of the Turkish courts' actions has been swift. U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the U.S. "strongly condemns the arrest of six respected human rights activists and calls for their immediate release," and urged Turkey to drop the charges, which it said undermine the country's rule of law.
Eliot Engel, the U.S. House of Representatives' ranking member on the Foreign Affairs committee, said that "The arrest of these brave men and women is unacceptable, and the latest example of the erosion of democracy in Turkey... I call on Turkish authorities to release Idil Eser and her fellow activists without delay or condition, and Secretary Tillerson must make this a top priority in his engagement with Turkey’s government."
Sweden's Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom has called for the release of Gharavi, who is a Swedish national. "It is our understanding that Gharavi was in Turkey to participate in a peaceful seminar about freedom of the internet and we have urged Turkey to quickly clarify the grounds for the accusations against him," she said in a statement.
Germany, Steudtner's home country, has taken an even more forceful line. "We are strongly convinced that this arrest is absolutely unjustified," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, according to the DPA news agency. Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel cut short a vacation to deal with the case, and summoned the Turkish Ambassador in Berlin, who was told "without diplomatic pleasantries" of Germany's expectation that Steudtner and his colleagues should be released immediately. Gabriel later warned that "the case of Peter Steudtner shows that German citizens are no longer safe from arbitrary arrests," and suggested that his continuing detention will lead to a "re-orienting" of German's policy toward Turkey.
The baseless prosecution of these human rights defenders, including Peter and Ali, two innocent technologists from allies of Turkey, highlights the decline of Turkey's democratic institutions. We continue to urge the Turkish authorities to listen to a chorus of countries and international organizations, and to free all ten victims of this profound injustice immediately.