The troubling case of the ‘Istanbul 10’

Sunday 29/10/2017

The twists and turns re­volving around human rights issues in Tur­key would make any­one’s head spin but few would have expected the release on bail of eight human rights activists who were standing trial on terrorism-related charges. It is a good news story but with a possible dark subtext.
An Istanbul court ordered the activists’ release October 25. Detained since July, they had been accused of “aiding armed terrorist organisations” and membership in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the far-left underground Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C). They were also said to be affiliated with cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the July 15, 2016, coup attempt.
The activists were supposed to have had all these political sympa­thies at the same time.
Ten activists — two of whom remain in custody — were arrested while attending a human rights workshop on digital security on an island near Istanbul. They includ­ed security experts Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner, who are Swedish and German, respectively.
Ask any legal expert and it is clear that there was no case against them to be arrested. Yet it happened in Turkey, where rule of law has been pushed aside for draconian security measures. In the months since their arrest, the trials and tribulations of the Istan­bul 10 have preoccupied Turkey’s Western allies.
The story is complicated. The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that former Ger­man Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder played the role of intermediary. Schroeder, it said, was asked before Germany’s elections in September to contact Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Schroeder is apparently highly regarded by Erdogan.
Schroeder insisted that his approach be “on behalf of the Ger­man government” and this was agreed. The magazine reported German Foreign Minister Sig­mar Gabriel’s grateful thanks to Schroeder. He told Der Spiegel that it was “the first sign of [a] lower­ing [of] the tension because the Turkish government fulfilled all its promises.”
What Gabriel meant by prom­ises “fulfilled” is unclear. And no one has explained what Berlin offered Erdogan in exchange for the release of Steudtner. There is no word either on the fate of other German citizens in Turkish prisons.
More than 60,000 people are in prison across Turkey following last year’s botched coup. Every day, there are reports of additional ar­rests. The only thing that changes is that different professional groups are targeted.
What’s disturbing is the mood among civil society activists and journalists. They see themselves as pawns in an ugly international game between Ankara and various world capitals.
There was yet more drama on the night of October 26. Another court in Istanbul extended the detention of a prominent busi­nessman and NGO activist Osman Kavala. Known for his work on Kurdish and Armenian issues, Kavala is accused of seeking to overthrow the government, an offence that could lead to a life-in-prison sentence. His arrest sent shock waves through the NGO community in Turkey because such groups had registered with the authorities.
So, what is the story here? The release of the eight activists is the good bit but, if the Der Spiegel report is true, Germany’s behav­iour could embolden Erdogan. He might easily make a habit out of what many analysts call “hostage politics.”
The playbook is obvious: Im­prisoning well-known dissidents and foreigners in the hope of a financial payoff or to pressure the international community to dis­regard allegations of wide-scale corruption. Corruption allegations have spilled beyond Turkey’s borders, not least with the case of Reza Zarrab in the United States.
While it is understandable that Germany would want to secure the release of its citizens, there is a fine line between a legitimate negotiation and legitimising lawlessness.