Büyükada Case: From a ‘How to Cope With Stress’ workshop to behind bars

7 January 2019
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by Çiçek Tahaoğlu

What started off as a modestly planned meeting turned into a criminal case imbued with symbolism in which the state has criminalized human rights defenders. At the same time, however, it has also shone a spotlight on all the rights violations faced by the activists

It’s one of the most ironic trials in recent Turkish history. In the Büyükada case, 11 rights defenders are standing trial over a workshop they organized to discuss ways of coping with secondary trauma and stress, provide information on data security and enjoy a little bit of recreation.

From a tip-off from an anonymous caller to a raid on a hotel and from the indictment to the trial, it’s been a whirlwind 18 months that have gone down in the annals of the Turkish judiciary.

The Büyükada trial process began in mid-summer with a raid on a hotel in which police burst onto the scene as if it were an action movie — even going so far as to yell “Hands up, don’t touch anything!” Naturally, the human rights violations continued, with officials recording the time of the raid as 2:30 p.m., even though it occurred at 9:30 a.m., refusing to divulge where the detainees were being kept and only allowing them to call their loved ones 30 hours later. The process kept developing with incidents that made life even harder for the suspects.

Özlem Dalkıran, one of the suspects, expressed the irony of the case in the first hearing: “I have been deprived of my freedom for more than three months. I do not know why. We had gone there to learn how to cope with stress. And now we have been placed under stress for more than 100 days.”

What started off as a modestly planned meeting turned into a criminal case imbued with symbolism in which the state has criminalized rights defenders. At the same time, however, it has also shone a spotlight on all the rights violations faced by the rights defenders.

“This is one of the crucial cases in building the state of arbitrary rule and developing a new definition of the citizen,” said lawyer Hülya Gülbahar, referring to the state of emergency rule, during a press meeting two months after the raid, while eight of the suspects were still in prison. “They want to send a message to all of society: Now you live under arbitrary rule. You do not have any rights. There are no organizations to defend your rights.”

Well-known human rights defenders, including two Amnesty International Turkey officials, are still on trial for charges of “committing a crime on behalf of an illegal organization without being a member to it” (Turkish Penal Code article 220/6) and "membership in an armed terrorist organization" (Turkish Penal Code articles 314/2 and 314/3).

The 11 civil society activists have turned into the subject of human rights violations that, until now, they had struggled against or reported on. This time, others reported on what they went through, while others launched campaigns to free them or carried their photographs in rallies around the world. As a result of this case, the focus of international public opinion has once against been turned to Turkey.

The Büyükada case was also a challenging process for the reporters in terms of presenting the reader with clear information. It had been reported that Bianet, an independent local press agency, was holding a training camp on the same dates on Büyükada, but other than that, no information was made accessible, since no other statements were made.

As the trial process began with violations, the news reporting also began with obscure expressions: “The time and nature of the [suspects’] detention has not been divulged to the families,” “Their place of detention was not revealed until 3 p.m. today,” or

“The charges they face are still unknown.”

After two weeks, they were brought to the Çağlayan Courthouse in central Istanbul. The “suspects” — with whom many of our familiar since we frequently contact them for expert opinions on news stories — were kept on the basement floor, while lawyers, reporters and their relatives were on the floor of the prosecutor’s office for 14 hours. Our plan was to take photos of their release at the end of the day.

Six of the 10 suspects were arrested toward morning. Three days later, two of the released were re-arrested. Later, things got even more complicated and, Taner Kılıç, Amnesty International Turkey chairman who had already been under arrest in another case since June 2017, was added to the file.

Then began the trial process, during which the judicial justification for what happened, and for what reason, was not always available. Meanwhile, the release and rearrest of suspects merely seemed like a joke to everybody.

İlknur Üstün and Nalan Ekrem were arrested three days after being released and kept in prison for three months, while Kılıç was rearrested by the same court that had freed him 24 days earlier. Looking at the headlines of online stories on the case, you would have thought there had been some mistake:

“Taner Kılıç released in Büyükada case,” “Taner Kılıç not released,” “Taner Kılıç re-arrested.”

The rights defenders also got a taste of Turkey’s long custody periods, only appearing in their first hearing 113 days after their detention.

The stress of the high-profile cases found me one day before the hearings. If it is a case with a high number of suspects and a political and symbolic dimension, hundreds of people — relatives of the suspects, lawyers, journalists, lawmakers, foreign and local delegations, activists and police officers — generally go to the courthouse… A hearing process that would last hours begins only after the hustle and bustle at the gate, which is replaced by an atmosphere of solidarity once in. People start sharing chocolate, snacks, water and chargers.

The first hearing for the Büyükada trial lasted 12 hours. Nine suspects (the remaining two attended the hearing via video-link), the gendarmerie accompanying them, plainclothes police officers, more than 30 lawyers and more than 100 viewers were all in one room.

Just like the other hearings of cases in which people with expertise struggle against rights violations, the chuckles at the irony of it all were soon cut short by the chief judge, who rebuked the gallery like a teacher shouting at his classroom.

The prosecutor demanded the release of all suspects except Veli Acu. I don’t know whether we were more surprised by the demand for the release of the seven or the demand for the continued arrest of the one, but it was an interesting opinion. In the end, all were released at the first hearing.

In the meantime, Kılıç’s file was merged with the Büyükada file, ensuring that he remained the sole detained suspect in the case until August 2018. The only reason for his arrest was the claim that he was a user of ByLock, a mobile app used by Fethullah Gülen’s followers, who stand accused of organizing the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. But despite multiple reports that said the app was not installed on his mobile, he remained behind bars for more than a year, and just like the other suspects, he was targeted in the media.

This whole process began with a tip from a secret witness, but testifying at the fourth hearing, the witness refused to respond to any questions, saying, “These questions aim at revealing my identity,” or “I do not remember, but I wouldn’t tell if I remembered,” and finally “I made a complaint because I thought that people who feel like they have a problem with the police are threats.” Oya Aydın, one of the lawyers in the case, used a Turkish idiom to explain how the probe was launched: “A lunatic threw a stone into a well and 40 wise people can’t pull it out.”

Lawyers say that the prosecutor’s claims have been proven wrong in light of the developments and reports submitted to the court. Even so, the trial continues.

Turning the probe and trial processes into a punishment is something we witness very often, including the Büyükada trial. The content differs, but everything progresses as if it is proceeding according to a pre-arranged template: The people who face charges are kept under arrest until at least the first hearing, ensuring they remain behind bars for a period that would equate to the same amount of time they would spend in jail if they were found guilty. They cannot learn the content of the charges until the indictment is prepared. In the meantime, the news reports in the media that oppose them give an idea about the charges; at other times, the indictment is published in papers even before their lawyers read it. The trials continue after the release of the suspects, while hearings are postponed, ensuring that the process drags on. The order of the arbitrariness and irregularity creates a new order.

All suspects have now been released in the Büyükada case, but the travel ban on Kılıç remains in place. As the lawyers said after a November 2018 hearing, it seems like the file has been completed and that the end of the case has come.

We are yet to see if the court will reach a verdict at its March 2019 hearing. After that, the ruling will require the approval of a higher court. This case has kept human rights defenders, lawyers and reporters busy for nearly two years, even though all the allegations were proven wrong — even from the very outset. It’s just one of hundreds of such cases…

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.