The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on Wednesday convened to examine the case of a former teacher in Turkey who was first dismissed from his job and later arrested over alleged links to the Gülen movement following a coup attempt in 2016, the Bold Medya news website reported.
The ruling, expected to be announced by the court later this year, will likely have an impact on the conviction or trial of thousands of people who face terrorism charges due to their links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based group accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the failed coup in 2016 and labelled as a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies any involvement in the failed putsch or any terrorist activity.
If the court rules that there was a rights violation in the case of former teacher Yüksel Yalçınkaya, the fate of thousands of people who were convicted or are standing trial on terrorism charges due to their links to the Gülen movement may change.
Dozens of Turkish rights activists as well as victims of the post-coup purge who are currently living in exile in Europe travelled to Strasbourg to follow the trial on Wednesday.
— ECHR CEDH (@ECHR_CEDH) January 18, 2023
More than 130,000 public servants were removed from their jobs in a massive purge launched by the Turkish government following the coup attempt on the grounds that they had links to terrorist organizations.
The chamber to which the Yalçınkaya case had been assigned relinquished jurisdiction in favor of the Grand Chamber last May.
Yalçınkaya was convicted of membership in a terrorist organization and sentenced to six years, three months’ imprisonment in 2017 by high criminal court in the central province of Kayseri. The court based its ruling on his alleged use of the ByLock app, membership in a labor union and an association affiliated with the Gülen movement and having an account at Bank Asya. Yalçınkaya’s sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals in October 2018.
The Turkish Constitutional Court also rejected as inadmissible an application lodged by Yalçınkaya.
Following the coup attempt the Turkish government accepted such activities as having an account at the now-closed Bank Asya, one of Turkey’s largest commercial banks at the time; using the encrypted ByLock messaging application, which was available on Apple’s App Store and Google Play; and subscribing to the Zaman daily or other publications affiliated with members of the movement as benchmarks for identifying and arresting alleged followers of the Gülen movement on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.
During Wednesday’s hearing, which took place with the attendance of ECtHR judges from 17 countries, Turkey was represented by a group of lawyers including two foreign attorneys.
The presiding judge, Síofra O’Leary, allowed the lawyers representing the Turkish government to present their defense statements first.
One of Turkey’s lawyers, Hacı Ali Açıkgöl, said the ByLock app was like the “DNA” of the Gülen movement and the use of this app by a person is sufficient evidence for their membership in a terrorist organization. The lawyers claimed that evidence collected by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) about people using the ByLock app was legal and that the decisions made by Turkish courts about Yalçınkaya were appropriate.
Yalçınkaya’s lawyers, Johan Heymans and Vande Lanotte, said in their defense statements that the prosecution of their client was an obvious sign of the violation of the human rights in Turkey. The lawyers said ByLock was available on Apple Store and Google Play and that downloading this app would not make anyone a criminal. The lawyers also said there are thousands of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters who downloaded this app but have not not faced any prosecution.
The ECtHR already found the use of ByLock not to constitute a criminal offense as it ruled in July 2021 in the case of former police officer Tekin Akgün that the use of the ByLock application is not an offense in itself and does not constitute sufficient evidence for an arrest.
Yet, despite the ECtHR ruling, detentions and arrests based on ByLock use continue unabated in Turkey.
According to Yalçınkaya’s lawyers, MİT collected intelligence on ByLock users unlawfully without a court decision, and their client used the app for a short time in 2015.
Lawyer Lanotte, who talked about the lack of an independent judiciary in Turkey, said the Gülen movement was labelled as a terrorist organization overnight although it was not considered to have been so before the coup attempt in 2016.
Turkey was ranked 116th among 140 countries in the rule of law index published by the World Justice Project (WJP) in October. The country saw the purge of more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors following the coup attempt. The purge of the so many judiciary members has been seen by many as an attempt by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to design the Turkish judiciary and fill their space with pro-government judges and prosecutors.