By Ece Toksabay
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The head of the Turkish branch of Amnesty International rejected accusations of terrorism on Wednesday, saying she had nothing to regret, at a trial of 11 activists that has become a flashpoint in Ankara’s tensions with Europe.
A group of around 50 people from human rights groups, foreign consulates and women’s rights groups stood outside the Istanbul court holding signs reading “Free Rights Defenders”.
Idil Eser spoke on the first day of the Istanbul trial that involves a German and a Swedish national as well as Turkish activists. They face up to 15 years jail if convicted.
“I don’t understand how I can be associated with three different terrorist organisations by having attended a workshop,” she said. “I don’t have anything to regret. I just did my work as a human rights defender.”
The 11 were detained in July after participating in a workshop on digital security held on an island near Istanbul. Pro-government media have said the workshop was part of a broader plot to sow discord in Turkish society.
Another accused, Ozlem Dalkiran, a member of the Turkish arm of the Citizens’ Assembly, a European rights group, told the court: “I have no idea why we’re here.”
The activists face a range of charges, including helping armed terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the network of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Ankara of engineering last year’s coup attempt.
The prosecutor has cited Amnesty’s links to jailed hunger strikers and alleged that some of the defendants had contact with people who had downloaded the encrypted messaging app used by the coup plotters.
Authorities have jailed more than 50,000 people pending trial in a crackdown following the failed military coup. President Tayyip Erdogan says the purges across society are necessary to maintain stability in a key NATO country bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.
European allies fear he is using the investigations to check opposition and undermine the judiciary.
‘TURKEY ON TRIAL’
“This is ostensibly a trial of human rights defenders attending a workshop on an island in Istanbul, but in fact it is the Turkish justice system and Turkish authorities that are on trial,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said outside the courthouse.
Among those also on trial are German citizen Peter Frank Steudtner and Swedish citizen Ali Gharavi.
A spokeswoman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry said that Berlin – which has seen its ties strained with Turkey following the coup – would be paying close attention to the trial.
“Turkey keeps saying its judiciary is independent. We respect that and so we hope the trial today in Istanbul will send an encouraging signal of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, including in the case of Peter Steudtner,” she said.
The case has worsened Turkey’s already fraught relations with the European Union it aspires to join. Shortly after the arrests, Germany said it was reviewing Turkey’s applications to buy weaponry from Germany. A cabinet minister in Berlin compared Ankara’s behaviour to that of the former Communist East Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Turkey’s 12-year-old attempt to join the European Union should be halted, although Ankara has said it remains determined to press on with its accession process.
(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton)