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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Courthouse News Service
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Rights court hears case stemming from failed Turkish coup attempt

The unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016 left hundreds dead and thousands jailed, including a former teacher contesting his terrorism conviction.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Lawyers for a man arrested for using a secure messaging app in the lead-up to the 2016 Turkish coup attempt denied Wednesday their client ever used the program, in a case that could have a wide impact on the thousands arrested in the wake of the failed uprising. 

Former teacher Yüksel Yalçınkaya is contesting his 2017 conviction for belonging to a terrorist organization before the European Court of Human Rights, claiming the Turkish government has refused to show him the evidence used to sentence him to six years in prison. 

On July 15, 2016, a group within the Turkish military attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a coordinated effort that included bombing parliament while it was in session. The uprising left more than 250 people dead and thousands injured. Erdoğan blamed the so-called Gülen movement, a dissent movement led by businessman Fethullah Gülen, who is living in self-imposed exile in the United States. 

In the aftermath, Erdoğan cracked down on political opponents, declaring the Gülen movement - which the Turkish government refers to as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, or FETÖ - an illegal group and arresting more than 70,000 people. 

Among them was Yalçınkaya, who was convicted based on his alleged use of ByLock, an encrypted messaging app developed by a Turkish American and used mainly in Türkiye. The Republic of Türkiye officially changed its name from the Republic of Turkey in May 2022, asking the world to use the Turkish name for the country rather than the anglicized version.

Lawyers for Türkiye told the Strasbourg-based court Wednesday the app was used exclusively by FETÖ members, thus proving Yalçınkaya’s connection to the organization. 

Since the coup, more than 35,000 people have been convicted for their association with FETÖ, many based on their use of ByLock. 

“This case is of the utmost importance,” Johan Heymans, one of the two lawyers representing Yalçınkaya, told the 17-judge panel.

Heymans said more than 600,000 people worldwide downloaded the app before it was shut down, but the Turkish government disputes this figure. Its lawyers told judges that only 100,000 people used ByLock. 

In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in another case stemming from the coup attempt that merely using the app was not sufficient to prove membership in a terrorist organization. In Akgün v. Turkey, the court sided with a former police officer, finding his conviction violated the European Convention on Human Rights, the treaty that underpins the court. 

But Türkiye contends that these convictions did not violate anyone’s rights and were necessary for the country’s security.

“The attempted violent overthrow amounts to armed terrorism,” Türkiye's agent Hacı Ali Açıkgül, who is also the head of the country's human rights department, told the court in his opening statements. 

The hearing was heavily attended. France and Germany have a large Turkish diaspora and many traveled to Strasbourg to watch the proceedings.

“It is important for all of our rights,” one man, who did not want to give his name but is a Turkish national living in France, told Courthouse News.

Yalçınkaya himself was not present in the courtroom. According to his lawyer, he has been released from prison but is not allowed to leave the country.

“I think he will be very pleased about how today went,” Heymans said in an interview after the hearing. 

A ruling in the case is expected later this year.

Erdoğan is mounting a campaign for a third term as president but is facing a struggling economy and rising cost of living. Elections in the country must be held by June. 

Follow @mollyquell
Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Government, International, Politics

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