STRASBOURG, France (CN) - Judges at Europe's top rights court ruled on Tuesday that the Turkish judicial system has substantial problems, finding Ankara was wrong to convict thousands of people for terrorism for using an encrypted app.
In a case brought by a former school teacher, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkish authorities have committed multiple human rights violations and ordered the country to nationally overhaul its judicial practices.
The ruling "is an important recognition of a systemic problem which needs to be redressed in Trkiye," the Strasbourg-based court wrote in the 185-page judgment, using the nation's preferred name. The case, brought by Yksel Yalcnkaya, has highlighted the ongoing failure of Turkish authorities to respect human rights.
The Republic of Trkiye 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.
On July 15, 2016, a group within the Turkish military attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoan in a coordinated effort that included bombing Parliament while it was in session. The uprising left more than 250 people dead and thousands injured. Erdoan blamed the so-called Glen movement, a dissent movement led by businessman Fethullah Glen, who is living in self-imposed exile in the United States.
In the aftermath, Erdoan cracked down on political opponents, declaring the Glen movement - which the Turkish government refers to as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, or FET - an illegal group and arresting more than 70,000 people.
Among them was Yalcnkaya, who was convicted of belonging to a terrorist organization in 2017, based on what authorities say was his use of ByLock, an encrypted messaging app developed by a Turkish American and used mainly in Turkey.
"My client is very happy today," lawyer Johan Heymans told Courthouse News. Yalcnkaya was unable to travel to France to witness the ruling, as Turkish authorities would not let him leave the country.
At the time, Yalcnkaya worked as a public school teacher in the central Turkish city of Kayseri. The 57-year-old became one of some 150,000 civil servants under suspicion of supporting the coup attempt.
During a hearing in January, lawyers for Turkey claimed the app was used exclusively by FET members, thus proving Yalcnkaya's connection to the organization. But Yalcnkaya's lawyers argued ByLock's use was much more common, with more than 600,000 people worldwide downloading the app before it was shut down.
The court has 8,500 pending complaints from Turkish citizens, contesting their convictions based on using the app.
Yalcnkaya was sentenced to six years and three months in jail but was released earlier this year, just days before his case was heard by the rights court.
In a statement, Turkey's justice minister, Yilmaz Tunc, criticized the ruling, saying the court didn't have the authority to rule on the case. "It is unacceptable for the ECHR to exceed its authority," he wrote.
In 2021, the court 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 Akgn 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.
Turkish human rights advocates are also looking to The Hague for justice. In March, a group of activists, human rights lawyers and politicians formally asked the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into what they say are crimes committed by the Turkish state.
Turkey is not a party to the Rome Statute, which created the world's only permanent court for atrocity crimes in 2002, but those calling for an investigation argue that government officials can still be held accountable for violations that took place in other member states.
According to the group, there are 17 cases of enforced disappearance from countries including Kenya, Bulgaria, Moldova, Switzerland and others, where the court has jurisdiction. The group also claims there are more than 200 Turkish citizens living abroad who have been refused passports, rendering them stateless.
The court ordered the Turkish government to pay Yalcnkaya 15,000 euros ($15,855) in damages.
Source: Courthouse News Service