Independent courts of course, not Schröder and May
Istanbul’s 35th criminal court released eight human rights activists after a hearing that ended late on Oct. 25. They had been arrested on July 5 during a seminar titled “Defending human rights in difficult times” at a hotel on the Istanbul island of Büyükada, after their translator told police that the activists were engaged in “subversive activities” against Turkey.
Following the arrest of the activists a smear campaign started in media outlets close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti). Their photos appeared on the front pages of some newspapers and on the screens of TV stations denouncing them as “spies” and “terrorists.”
They were accused of engaging in espionage activities against Turkey, of being involved in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, and of having relations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the illegal network of the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. President Tayyip Erdoğan also said there was information that they were involved in “follow up” activities of the coup attempt.
Among those in detention were İdil Eser, the head of the Turkish chapter of Amnesty International, five more Turkish activists, German citizen Peter Frank Steudtner, and Swedish citizen Ali Ghravi.
The day after their release, none of those newspapers or TV stations even mentioned the release of “spies and terrorists,” but some commentators suggested that they and Erdoğan may have been “deceived” again by certain “crypto-Gülenists” in the media, police and judiciary.
There was another surprise to come. After the release of the activists, German media outlets on Oct 26 wrote that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had spoken to Erdoğan about their release almost a month ago, a week before Germany’s federal elections on Sept. 24.
Schröder is currently working for the Russian energy giant Gazprom as a board member and is often criticized in the media in Germany and elsewhere. Schröder is known to be on good terms with both Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Later in the same day, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said it was he who asked Schröder to make use of his access to Erdoğan in favour of the German citizens among the detained activists, after first asking Chancellor Angela Merkel. Gabriel also thanked the Turkish government for “keeping its promises,” saying he hoped there would be more steps. The German government has been working for the release of two more of its citizens accused of espionage: journalist Deniz Yücel and translator Meşale Tolu.
Picking up on Gabriel’s words, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu asked in a live interview on private broadcaster CNN Türk whether it was indeed Schröder who got the human rights activists released. He claimed that if so this once again demonstrated that there was no court independence in today’s Turkey.
On Oct. 27, Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül said the claim was not true and stressed that there was no bargaining between Turkey and Germany on the release of the activists. The release was the result of an independent court ruling, Gül said.
Actually it was not only Schröder who raised the sensitivity of putting human rights activists in jail. Alan Duncan, British Minister for European Affairs, had said in July that the issue was raised to Turkish leadership by the prime minister and foreign minister.
According to official sources who asked not to be named, British Prime Minister Theresa May has talked to President Erdoğan twice on the issue: At the G20 Summit in July in Hamburg and in New York during the U.N. General Assembly meetings in September.
It is possible that the Turkish government will continue to deny or play down these reports. But the debate has started within the pro-government media about who might be the “crypto-Gülenists” among them and who can be blamed. That debate might be worth watching.