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Turkish Court Jails Six Human Rights Activists Pending Trial

ISTANBUL — A Turkish court on Tuesday jailed Amnesty International's Turkey director and five other human rights activists pending trial for allegedly aiding an armed terror group — making them the latest suspects in a massive government crackdown initially launched against alleged supporters of last year's failed coup but has since broadened to include government opponents.

In a decision which Amnesty International called a "crushing blow for rights in Turkey," the court in Istanbul also decided to release four other activists from custody pending the outcome of a trial, but barred them from traveling abroad. They will also have to report regularly to police.

The 10 — Amnesty's Turkey director Idil Eser, seven human rights defenders and their German and Swedish trainers —were detained in a July 5 police raid on a hotel on the island of Buyukada, off Istanbul, where they were attending a digital security workshop.

Image: People walk outside the court, in Istanbul, Turkey
People walk outside the court, in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, July 17, 2017. Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

The detentions added to the growing concerns over rights and freedoms in the country where the post-coup crackdown has resulted in more than 50,000 arrests and the dismissal of more than 110,000 from government jobs. The crackdown has netted journalists, politicians and activists. Several media outlets and NGOs have been shut down.

"This is not a legitimate investigation, this is a politically motivated witch-hunt that charts a frightening future for rights in Turkey," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary general.

He said: "Today we have learned that standing up for human rights has become a crime in Turkey. This is a moment of truth, for Turkey and for the international community."

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Shetty also called on countries to put pressure on Turkey to release the activists, saying: "leaders around the world must stop biting their tongues and acting as if they continue business as usual."

Amnesty said the 10 are suspected of "committing crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member."

Germany's government is calling for the release of the German trainer, who it identified as Peter Steudtner.

"We are strongly convinced that this arrest is absolutely unjustified," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, according to the dpa news agency.

Merkel added that the German government would "do everything, on all levels" to secure his release.

Image: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, chairs the National Security Council meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 17, 2017. Presidency Press Service Pool via AP

Turkish media reports said prosecutors, requesting the arrests, presented as evidence records of their communications with suspects linked to Kurdish and left-wing militants as well as the movement led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of orchestrating last year's failed coup attempt.

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Amnesty said accusations against Eser tried to link her to three terror organizations through her work with the advocacy group. Prosecutors had referred to two campaigns led by Amnesty, which weren't authored by Amnesty Turkey, the rights group said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month rejected the label "activists" when asked about the 10, and made vague accusations, saying the group was involved in a meeting that had the "nature of a continuation" of the coup attempt.

Turkey says the crackdown is necessary to weed out Gulen's followers amid a continued threat from his movement and to eradicate terror groups.

In April, Erdogan went on to win by a narrow majority a referendum on a series of constitutional amendments that will increase the powers of his office with few checks and balances and abolish the position of prime minister, a development critics fear will lead Turkey toward authoritarian rule.

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Turkey's main opposition party called the court's decision a "shame for Turkey" and raised concerns about whether they would get a fair trial.

"In Turkey, the judiciary is far away from being objective and independent," said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a former human rights lawyer and legislator from the opposition Republican People's Party, CHP. "It's impossible to speak o fair hearings in an environment where there is no objective and independent judiciary."