ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish police have detained 10 people including the local director of Amnesty International and other rights activists on suspicion of membership of a terrorist organization, Amnesty said on Thursday in what it called a “grotesque abuse of power”.
The detentions came less than a month after a court ordered the arrest of the chairman of Amnesty’s Turkey branch, Taner Kilic, on the same charge in a crackdown following an attempted military coup in July 2016. Kilic remains in jail pending trial.
Amnesty Turkey Director Idil Eser and the others were removed from a meeting they were holding at a hotel on Buyukada, an island just south of Istanbul, and taken to various police stations across Turkey’s largest city on Wednesday evening, a lawyer for some of the detainees, Bahri Belen, told Reuters.
Belen said prosecutors had decided on a seven-day detention period, which needs to be approved by a judge. Police were not immediately available for comment, but Belen said an explanation might come on Friday when the activists are transferred from the police stations to Istanbul’s police headquarters.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty described the accusations against the 10 people, who were attending a workshop on digital security and information management, as absurd.
“Their spurious detention while attending a routine workshop was bad enough: that they are now being investigated for membership of an armed terrorist organization beggars belief,” Shetty said in a statement.
Eser and seven other human rights campaigners were detained along with two foreign trainers – a German and a Swedish national, Amnesty said. In an earlier statement, it also said the hotel’s owner had been detained.
The United States is “deeply concerned” by the arrests, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
“As with past arrests of prominent human rights defenders, journalists, academics, and activists, we underscore the importance of respecting due process and individual rights, as enshrined in the Turkish Constitution, and consistent with Turkey’s own international commitments,” Nauert said. “More voices, not fewer, are necessary in challenging times.”
Since the failed putsch a year ago, Turkey has jailed more than 50,000 people pending trial and suspended or dismissed some 150,000, including soldiers, police, teachers and public servants, over alleged links with terrorist groups.
The purge, which has also led to the closure of some 130 media outlets and jailing of 150 journalists, has alarmed Turkey’s Western allies and rights groups, who say President Tayyip Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, in Turkey on Thursday to discuss its performance in European Union accession talks, said he had raised the detentions with Turkish officials.
“... (But) I didn’t get a sufficient answer about it. We will continue to follow this,” he told a news conference at Ankara airport.
Hahn also said he had stressed the need for Turkey to respect the rule of law and the right of people to a fair trial.
More than 240 people were killed in last year’s coup attempt, and the government has said the security measures are necessary because of the gravity of the threats facing Turkey.
Amnesty Turkey’s chairman was detained in early June with 22 other lawyers over alleged links to the network of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the failed coup.
“If anyone was still in doubt of the endgame of Turkey’s post-coup crackdown, they should not be now,” Amnesty’s Shetty said. “There is to be no civil society, no criticism and no accountability in Erdogan’s Turkey.”
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Diane Craft and Gareth Jones