Amnesty activists on trial in Turkey

Protesters outside Istanbul courtroom

ISTANBUL - Eleven human rights activists, including the two top figures with Amnesty International in Turkey, went on trial Wednesday in Istanbul on contested terror charges, seen by the rights watchdog as a test case for the judiciary.
All bar two of the activists -- who include two foreigners -- have been behind bars since a police raid in July on a workshop run by Amnesty on an island off Istanbul.
They face up to 15 years in jail if convicted after the trial at Istanbul's main court.
The accused include the director of Amnesty Turkey Idil Eser, who was detained in the raid by police on the workshop on the island of Buyukada.
Also going on trial is Amnesty's Turkey chair Taner Kilic, who was detained in June and whose case has been merged with that of the other 10 activists as prosecutors claimed he was aware of preparations for the workshop.
He has been charged with membership of an armed terror group while the others are charged with "aiding" an armed terror group. Kilic was present in court via video link from a prison in Izmir, western Turkey.
The activists are accused of seeking to wreak "chaos in society" -- in a similar charge to the one brought against anti-government protesters whose demonstrations rocked Turkey in the summer of 2013.
The charges amplified concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey under the state of emergency imposed after last year's failed coup aimed at unseating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ankara blamed the coup attempt on the self-exiled Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who denies the accusations.
Erdogan in July said the activists were detained after a tip-off that they were working against the government, comparing them to those involved in the failed coup.
A group of supporters gathered outside the Caglayan courthouse before it began and unfurled banners saying "free rights defenders".
There was a tense atmosphere at the start of the trial, with dozens of the activists' supporters trying to enter the courtroom, one correspondent said.
- 'Test case' -
Amnesty International's Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner said the case against the human rights defenders was "a completely baseless prosecution that doesn't have a shred of evidence and doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny".
"The case will be a test case for Turkey's judiciary," he said.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe director, said a "real question I think people in Turkey are asking themselves and people abroad are also asking is what direction Turkey is heading if the country goes on like this."
"Turkey will rapidly see itself understood as a rogue state heading in a desperately authoritarian direction," he added.
Human Rights Watch condemned the fact that the trial was taking place "despite the absence of any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing", as it urged the prosecution to drop the "politically motivated" charges.
The two foreigners -- German Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi -- were leading a digital information workshop on Buyukada and have been under arrest since the July raid.
Steudtner's detention has stoked tensions in particular with Berlin, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has described the terror charges as "incomprehensible".
Sweden this month summoned Turkey's ambassador over the case of Gharavi, saying it was "worried" about the accusations against him.
- Solidarity from Snowden -
Amnesty posted a video message from Edward Snowden -- a former CIA employee who in 2013 revealed spying activities of the National Security Agency -- in support of the detained rights activists.
"The director and the chair of Amnesty International in Turkey are in prison for defending human rights," Snowden said.
"I know what it means to have support from the outside world in that moment, when you are alone, when you need it most. Join me, and together let's stand up for human rights defenders in Turkey."
Amnesty supporters from 110 countries worldwide stood up for Snowden as part of a campaign. Thousands wrote solidarity messages as well.
The suspects in Turkey are accused of links to outlawed groups including the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Gulen's organisation and the far-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).
Gardner said the "scandalous case ... must be finally put to bed" three months later and that the human rights defenders must be released "unconditionally".