World wary of Taliban government, Afghans urge action on rights and economy

(Reuters) – Foreign countries greeted the makeup of the new government in Afghanistan with caution and dismay on Wednesday after the Taliban appointed hardline veteran figures to top positions, including several with a U.S. bounty on their head.

Small protests persisted in Afghanistan, with dozens of women taking to the streets of Kabul to demand representation in the new administration and for their rights to be protected.

More broadly, people urged the new leaders to revive the Afghan economy, which is facing steep inflation, food shortages exacerbated by drought and the prospect of overseas investment disappearing as the outside world eyes the Taliban warily.

The Islamist militant movement swept to power nearly four weeks ago in a stunning victory hastened by the withdrawal of U.S. military support to Afghan government forces.

It has taken time to form a government, and although the posts are acting rather than final, the appointment of a cabinet of hardline veterans has been seen by other nations as a signal that the Taliban are not looking to broaden their base and present a more tolerant face to the world.

The group has promised to respect people’s rights and not seek vendettas, but it has been criticized for its heavy-handed response to protests and its part in a chaotic evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Kabul airport.

“The announcement of a transitional government without the participation of other groups and yesterday’s violence against demonstrators and journalists in Kabul are not signals that give cause for optimism,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

The European Union voiced its disapproval at the appointments, announced late on Tuesday in Kabul, but said it was ready to continue humanitarian assistance. Longer term aid would depend on the Taliban upholding basic freedoms.

The U.S. State Department said it was concerned about the “affiliations and track records” of some of the people named by the Taliban to fill top posts.

“The world is watching closely,” a spokesperson said.

The new acting cabinet includes former detainees of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, while the interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is wanted by the United States on terrorism charges and carries a reward of $10 million.

His uncle, with a bounty of $5 million, is the minister for refugees and repatriation.

The Taliban’s sudden victory, which took even its leadership by surprise, has presented the rest of the world with a dilemma.

They want to keep aid flowing and to help those with the appropriate paperwork who want to leave, but they may have to engage with a movement that, until a few weeks ago, was an insurgency blamed for thousands of civilian deaths.


The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, women were banned from work and girls from school. The group carried out public executions and its religious police enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Taliban leaders have vowed to respect people’s rights, including those of women, in accordance with sharia, but those who have won greater freedoms over the last two decades are worried about losing them.

In Kabul, a group of women bearing signs reading “A cabinet without women is a failure” held another protest in the Pul-e Surkh area of the city. Larger demonstrations on Tuesday were broken up when Taliban gunmen fired warning shots into the air.

“The cabinet was announced and there were no women in the cabinet. And some journalists who came to cover the protest were all arrested and taken to the police station,” said a woman in a video shared on social media.

Zaki Daryabi, head of the daily newspaper Etilaatroz, said some of his reporters had been beaten while covering Tuesday’s protests, which came hours before the new government was revealed.

Taliban officials have said that protests would be allowed, but that they must be announced in advance and authorized.

For many Afghans, more pressing than the composition of the cabinet was the economic fallout of the chaos triggered by the Taliban’s conquest, including its impact on healthcare.

Shukrullah Khan, manager of a restaurant at Qargha Lake, a popular local resort near Kabul, said business had slumped to next to nothing.

“The business and bazaars compared to the previous government, has been decreased by 98%,” he said.

“The banks are closed, there’s no jobs, people no longer spend money. Where does the money come from so that people can have fun here?”

Aid flights have begun to arrive at Kabul airport, but many more will be needed over the coming months.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appealed to other humanitarian organizations to return to Afghanistan and for the World Bank to unlock funds to support the tottering healthcare system.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero’s family calls for an international trial


NAIROBI, (Reuters) – The family of Paul Rusesabagina – hailed a hero in a Hollywood movie about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide but detained by Kigali this week, has demanded he be tried in an international court, his son said on Wednesday.

The Rwandan government dismissed the demand, revealed by his son in an interview with Reuters after Rusesabagina, who lives in the United States and had been traveling, appeared in handcuffs back in his homeland on Monday. His family said he had been kidnapped; Rwandan officials said he had been arrested on an international warrant on terrorism charges.

“Paul Rusesabagina is a Rwandan accused of crimes that were committed in Rwanda against Rwandan citizens and thus will be tried by a Rwandan court,” Foreign Affairs Minister and government spokesman, Vincent Biruta, said by telephone.

The former hotel manager was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ using his job and his connections with the Hutu elite to protect Tutsis fleeing the slaughter. He later acquired Belgian citizenship and in a 2018 YouTube video he called for armed resistance to the now Tutsi-led government.

The Rwanda Investigation Bureau said he would face several charges including “terrorism, financing terrorism … arson, kidnap and murder”.

Relatives of Rusesabagina say they last heard from him in Dubai.

“If the Rwandan government think they have a solid case against him on terrorism charges or financing of terrorism, then they have to take it to an international court,” Roger Rusesabagina, his elder son, said in the interview.

The Rwandan government’s past attempts to charge his father internationally had failed, he said. “They tried to bring up the charges in Belgium and the charges were dismissed because they didn’t make any sense. The United States did not find those charges to be believable.”

The Belgian foreign ministry said Rwanda had informed Belgium of the arrest but declined to comment further.

Rusesabagina, who resides in Texas, U.S, was not likely to get justice in his country of birth, given the manner in which he was moved to Kigali, the son said.

“Kidnapping should not be the solution,” he said.

His father has been a strong critic of President Paul Kagame’s government, whose credit for returning the country to stability after the genocide, and boosting economic growth, has been tainted by accusations of widespread repression.

Kagame was declared to have won nearly 99% of the vote in the last election. One of his main opponents, Diane Rwigara, was jailed with her mother for more than a year on charges that judges later dismissed.

Rusesabagina’s family said it was now their turn to speak up for him.

“That voice of the voiceless is being shut down so he is going to need us to be his voice for a while,” said Tresor Rusesabagina, his youngest son.

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; additional reporting by Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels; editing by Katharine Houreld and Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. pastor’s lawyer says new Turkish prosecution witnesses irrelevant to case

FILE PHOTO: Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of the jailed pastor Andrew Brunson, talks to media outside the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

By Yesim Dikmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – New prosecution witnesses expected to testify on Friday in the Turkish trial of a U.S. Christian pastor on terrorism charges lack relevance as their testimony will focus on incidents after Andrew Brunson’s arrest, his lawyer said.

The case against Brunson, an evangelical preacher from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, has become the flashpoint in a diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington, triggering U.S. tariffs against Turkey and condemnation from U.S. President Donald Trump.

FILE PHOTO: Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of the jailed pastor Andrew Brunson, arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

FILE PHOTO: Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of the jailed pastor Andrew Brunson, arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Brunson, who was jailed in October 2016 and has been under house arrest since July, is due to appear in court for the next hearing in his trial on Friday. The prosecution is expected to introduce two new secret witnesses, but Brunson’s lawyer Cem Halavurt said their testimonies were not germane to the case.

One of the witnesses, called “Sword” by prosecutors, claimed to have seen Brunson’s wife at a Christian gathering in Western Turkey, according to testimony to prosecutors published by the Hurriyet newspaper. The meeting made Sword feel “uncomfortable”, according to the Hurriyet’s account of the testimony.

“The incidents took place when my client was in jail,” Halavurt told Reuters. “These incidents are not relevant to my client.”

The court in Izmir, the coastal province where Brunson ran his small church, will decide whether it will hear the testimony from the new witnesses at the hearing.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that Brunson’s release on Friday would be an important step and the right thing for Turkey to do.

Brunson is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016. He has denied the accusation – as has Gulen – and Washington has demanded his immediate release.

Jailed or held under house arrest since October 2016, Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted. Last month the main prosecutor in his trial was replaced, a move his lawyer cautiously welcomed, saying it might be a sign of changing political will.

Despite pressure from the Trump administration, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that he has no sway over the judiciary and that the courts will decide on Brunson’s fate.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by David Dolan and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Lawyer of U.S. pastor says to appeal to top Turkish court for his release

FILE PHOTO: U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency/DHA via REUTERS/File Photo

ANKARA (Reuters) – The lawyer of an American Christian pastor on trial on terrorism charges in Turkey said he will appeal to the constitutional court on Wednesday to seek his client’s release.

The case of Andrew Brunson, whose next regular court hearing is on Oct. 12, has become the most divisive issue in a worsening diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington that has triggered a punishing regime of U.S. sanctions and tariffs against Turkey.

“We will appeal tomorrow to the Constitutional Court to lift the house arrest,” lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt told Reuters on Tuesday.

The evangelical pastor is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016. He has denied the accusation – as has Gulen – and Washington has demanded his immediate release.

On Monday, President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to fight, within legal and diplomatic frameworks, “this crooked understanding, which imposes sanctions using the excuse of a pastor who is tried due to his dark links with terror organizations.”

Halavurt said he did not expect the constitutional court to make a ruling before the Oct. 12 hearing, “but we want to have completed our appeal before (then)”.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for two decades, has been detained for 21 months on terrorism charges and is currently under house arrest.

Donald Trump, who counts evangelical Christians among his core supporters, has become a vocal champion of the pastor’s case.

The U.S. president believed he and Erdogan had agreed a deal to release him in July as part of a wider agreement, but Ankara has denied this.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Daren Butler and John Stonestreet)

Exclusive: Turkey’s Erdogan says court will decide fate of detained U.S. pastor

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Stephen Adler and Parisa Hafezi

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said a Turkish court, not politicians, will decide the fate of an American pastor whose detention on terrorism charges has hit relations between Ankara and Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful Turkey would release evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson this month. The preacher was moved to house arrest in July after being detained for 21 months.

In an interview with Reuters late on Tuesday while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, Erdogan said any decision on Brunson would be made by the court.

“This is a judiciary matter. Brunson has been detained on terrorism charges … On Oct. 12 there will be another hearing and we don’t know what the court will decide and politicians will have no say on the verdict,” Erdogan said.

If found guilty, Brunson could be jailed for up to 35 years. He denies the charges. “As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, infuriated by Brunson’s detention, authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey in August. Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on U.S. cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.

The Turkish lira has lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year on concerns over Erdogan’s grip on monetary policy and the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Washington.

“The Brunson case is not even closely related to Turkey’s economy. The current economic challenges have been exaggerated more than necessary and Turkey will overcome these challenges with its own resources,” Erdogan said.

Turkey’s central bank raised its benchmark rate by a hefty 625 basis points this month, boosting the lira and possibly easing investor concern over Erdogan’s influence on monetary policy. Erdogan said he was against the measure.

“It shows the central bank is independent. As the president, I am against high-interest rates and I am repeating my stance here again,” he said, adding that high rates “primarily scare away investors”.

“This was a decision made by the central bank … I hope and pray that their expectations will be met because high rates lead to high inflation. I hope the other way around will happen this time.”

The lira firmed slightly on Wednesday morning after Erdogan’s assurance on the independence of the central bank was published.


In an effort to boost the economy and attract investors, Erdogan will travel on Sept. 28 to Germany, a country that is home to millions of Turks.

“We want to completely leave behind all the problems and to create a warm environment between Turkey and Germany just like it used to be,” Erdogan said, adding that he will meet Chancellor Angela Merkel during his visit.

The two NATO members have differed over Turkey’s crackdown on suspected opponents of Erdogan after a failed coup in 2016 and over its detention of German citizens.

On Syria, Erdogan said it was impossible for Syrian peace efforts to continue with President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Earlier this month, Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to enforce a new demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region from which “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by the middle of next month.

But Erdogan said the withdrawal of “radical groups” had already started.

“This part of Syria will be free of weapons which is the expectation of the people of Idlib … who welcomed this step,” he said. The demilitarized zone will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.

Close to 3 million people live in Idlib, around half of them displaced by the war from other parts of Syria.

Erdogan said Turkey will continue to buy natural gas from Iran in line with its long-term supply contract despite Trump’s threats to punish countries doing business with Iran.

“We need to be realistic … Am I supposed to let people freeze in winter? …Nobody should be offended. How can I heat my people’s homes if we stop purchasing Iran’s natural gas?,” he said.

Trump pulled the United States out of a 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Iran and in August Washington reimposed sanctions on Tehran, lifted in 2016 under the pact. U.S. sanctions on Iran’s energy sector are set to be re-imposed in November.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Heavens)

U.S. official warns of more actions against Turkey if pastor not freed

FILE PHOTO: U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency/DHA via REUTERS/File photo

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is warning more economic pressures may be in store for Turkey if it refuses to release a jailed American pastor, a White House official said on Tuesday, in a dispute that has further strained relations between the NATO allies.

The tough message emerged a day after White House national security adviser John Bolton met privately with Turkish ambassador Serdar Kilic about the case of evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson. Bolton warned him that the United States would not give any ground, a senior U.S. official said.

The White House official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said “nothing has progressed” thus far on the Brunson case.

“The administration is going to stay extremely firm on this. The president is 100 percent committed to bringing Pastor Brunson home and if we do not see actions in the next few days or a week there could be further actions taken,” the official said.

Further actions would likely take the form of economic sanctions, the official said, who added: “The pressure is going to keep up if we’re not seeing results.”

Relations between Turkey and the United States have been soured by Brunson’s detention, as well as diverging interests on Syria. Trump doubled tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum last week, contributing to a precipitous fall in the lira.

The United States is also considering a fine against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for allegedly helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. Earlier this month, the United States imposed sanctions on two top officials in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet in an attempt to get Turkey to turn over Brunson.

Brunson is accused of backing a coup attempt against Turkish Erdogan two years ago, charges that he has denied. He is being tried on terrorism charges.

Brunson has appealed again to a Turkish court to release him from house arrest and lift his travel ban, his lawyer told Reuters on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish)

Turkish court keeps U.S. pastor in jail, Washington says deeply concerned

Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of the jailed pastor Andrew Brunson, talks to media in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal A

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ALIAGA, Turkey (Reuters) – A Turkish court decided on Wednesday to keep an American pastor in jail, dashing hopes that he could be released during his trial on terrorism and spying charges, a case that has deepened a rift with NATO ally Washington.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan, as well as supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

Brunson, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

“It is really hard to stay in jail and be separated from my wife and children,” Brunson, wearing a black suit and a white shirt, told the court in Turkish.

“There is no concrete evidence against me. The disciples of Jesus suffered in his name, now it is my turn. I am an innocent man on all these charges. I reject them. I know why I am here. I am here to suffer in Jesus’s name.”

President Donald Trump has called for his release and the U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

The U.S. envoy to Turkey said he was “disappointed” by the ruling by the court in the Aegean province of Izmir where Brunson had been living.

“Our government is deeply concerned about his status and the status of other American citizens and Turkish local employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under state of emergency rules,” Charge d’affaires Philip Kosnett told reporters outside the courtroom.

“We have great respect for both Turkey’s traditional role as a haven for people of faiths and Turkey’s legal traditions. We believe this case is out of step with these traditions,” he said.


Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third-largest city, south of the Aegean town of Aliaga where he is now on trial.

His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt had raised hopes that he could be released as the prosecution witnesses finish testifying.

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson's wife Norine Brunson leaves from Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson’s wife Norine Brunson leaves from Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

But Halavurt said on Wednesday the prosecution has added the testimonies of two new anonymous witnesses to the case and that the court will hold its next

hearing on October 12 to hear them and view new evidence.

Turkey’s lira weakened against the dollar immediately after the ruling, reflecting investor worries about tensions with the United States. It was nearly half a percent weaker on the day, at 4.8215 at 1234 GMT.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases that have raised tensions between Washington and Ankara. A U.S. judge sentenced a Turkish bank executive in May to 32 months in prison for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, while two locally employed U.S. consulate staff in Turkey have been detained.

The NATO allies are also at odds over U.S. policy in Syria, where Washington’s ally in the fight against Islamic State is a Kurdish militia Turkey says is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Philip Kosnett, U.S. Charge d'affaires in Turkey, talks to media in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Philip Kosnett, U.S. Charge d’affaires in Turkey, talks to media in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

The Turkish government says Brunson’s case will be decided by the courts. But Erdogan has previously linked his fate to that of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt and whose extradition Ankara seeks.

Gulen has denied having any link to the failed coup, in which at least 250 people were killed.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dominic Evans, David Dolan and Andrew Heavens)

Jailed U.S. pastor denies terrorism charges in Turkish court

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson's wife Norine Brunson arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ANKARA (Reuters) – A U.S. pastor denied terrorism and spying charges in a Turkish court on Monday and called them “shameful and disgusting”, in a prosecution that has been condemned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Andrew Brunson, who could face up to 35 years in jail, denied links to a network led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016, and the outlawed Kurdish PKK militant group.

The Christian pastor from North Carolina has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and has been jailed pending trial since 2016.

“I am helping Syrian refugees, they say that I am aiding the PKK. I am setting up a church, they say I got help from Gulen’s network,” Brunson said, referring to the testimonies of anonymous witnesses in court.

One of the secret witnesses accused Brunson of trying to establish a Christian Kurdish state, and providing coordinates to U.S. forces in the delivery of weapons to the Kurdish YPG militia, active in northern Syria.

“My service that I have spent my life on, has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus but these claims are shameful and disgusting,” Brunson told the court in the Aegean town of Aliaga, north of Izmir.

Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.


Brunson’s legal case is among several roiling U.S.-Turkish relations, including one in New York against a former executive of Turkish state lender Halkbank. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Erdogan suggested last year Brunson’s fate could be linked to that of Gulen, whom Turkey wants extradited.

Gulen denies any association with the coup attempt. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with it.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted after Brunson’s first court appearance last month that the pastor was on trial for “no reason”.

“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” Trump said.

Outside the court on Monday, Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called for the clergyman’s release.

“Every day that Andrew Brunson spends here in prison is another day that the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world,” she told reporters.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is expected to meet with U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington this week or next, said on Saturday any decision was up to the court.

“They say that the government should release him,” he said. “Is it in my power? This is a decision the judiciary will make.”

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; editing by Andrew Roche)

After four months jail, Turkey’s Amnesty director says trial is ‘surreal’

Idil Eser, the director of Amnesty in Turkey, poses during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey, October 31, 2017.

By Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Amnesty International’s Turkey director, freed from four months detention but still facing trial on terrorism charges, said the case against her and other human rights activists was “absurd and surreal”.

Idil Eser was one of eight activists freed last week on bail, in a case which has become a flash-point in Turkey’s tense relations with Europe. Their trial has brought condemnation from rights groups and some Western governments concerned by what they see as creeping authoritarianism in the NATO member state.

The activists were detained by police in July as they attended a workshop on digital security and information management on an island near Istanbul.

The charge against them, of aiding a terrorist organization, is similar to those leveled against tens of thousands of Turks detained since a failed military coup by rogue soldiers in July 2016, in which at least 240 people were killed.

“I cannot even find words to describe the absurdity, the surreality of the situation. It’s total nonsense,” Eser said when asked about the charges. She was speaking to Reuters in her first interview since being released.

Turkey rejects foreign criticism of the trials and says its judiciary operates independently of the government.

“Turkey is a state of law and our judges are independent and impartial,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters earlier this week when asked about the case.

At the time of the activists’ detention, President Tayyip Erdogan said the eight had gathered on the island for a meeting “that might be considered as a follow-up” to last year’s failed coup, which he has cast as part of a foreign-backed plot.

Erdogan was quoted by several Turkish newspapers on Thursday as telling reporters on his plane that the judiciary was acting independently in the case. “We cannot know how the court will rule in the end,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted him as saying.



The indictment also brought charges against Swedish national Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner, a German, prompting an angry response from Berlin, which threatened to put curbs on economic investment in Turkey and said it was reviewing arms projects.

The day after their release last week, Steudtner and Gharavi left Turkey, but the trial continues on Nov. 22. Prosecutors have sought jail sentences of up to 15 years for all of the defendants.

Steudtner and Gharavi told the court during the trial that they were shocked by the allegations against them. They could not immediately be reached for further comment.

Authorities have jailed more than 50,000 people pending trial in a crackdown following the abortive coup. Erdogan says the purges across society are necessary to maintain stability in Turkey, a NATO member state bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.

European allies fear he is using the investigations to check opposition and undermine the judiciary.

Eser said her time in jail had marked a turning point in her life. Less than a week after her release, the 54-year-old made an appointment at a tattoo parlor in central Istanbul.

“With other defendants, we had decided to go to a Turkish bath when we got out, and the other decision was to get a tattoo,” she said. “So I started right away.”


(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)


Turkey’s arrest of prominent activists stirs protest

Turkey Protest

By Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Supporters of a pro-Kurdish newspaper on Tuesday protested against the arrest of three prominent activists facing terrorism charges in Turkey and said the government was tightening its grip on independent media in a case being watched by the European Union.

About 200 people chanted “The free press cannot be silenced” as riot police stood by outside daily Ozgur Gundem, a day after a court arrested Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative Erol Onderoglu, author Ahmet Nesin and Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation.

The three had joined a “solidarity campaign” with nearly 50 other journalists to guest-edit the paper for a day each. Ozgur Gundem focuses on the Kurdish conflict and has faced dozens of investigations, fines and the arrest of a dozen correspondents since 2014. Other guest editors are also being investigated or prosecuted on terrorism-related charges.

“The court, directed by the palace and acting on its orders, once again has signed its name to a shameful decision and arrested our three friends,” editor Inan Kizilkaya said, referring to President Tayyip Erdogan’s office.

The presidency said it would not comment on court cases.

The arrests are a headache for the European Union, trying to keep a deal with Turkey on track to stop the flow of migrants to Europe, despite criticism from rights groups and concern from some European leaders about Turkey’s record on rights.

The EU, which Turkey seeks to join, said the arrests violated Ankara’s commitment to fundamental rights.

Turkey ranks 151 out of 180 nations on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. It accuses Erdogan, Turkey’s most popular leader in a half-century, of an “offensive against Turkey’s media” that includes censorship and harassment.

“The jailing of Onderoglu and (Fincanci), two of Turkey’s most respected rights defenders, is a chilling sign human rights groups are the next target,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Fincanci, 57, a professor of forensic medicine, is particularly well-known, having won the first International Medical Peace Award for helping establish U.N. principles for detecting and documenting torture.


Erdogan has vowed to stamp out a three-decade insurgency by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants that flared anew a year ago after peace talks he spearheaded collapsed.

Left-wing Ozgur Gundem, which has a circulation of 7,500, has featured the writings of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s jailed leader, and has published columns by senior rebel commanders. Turkey, the U.S. and EU list the PKK as a terrorist group.

The Index on Censorship says 20 journalists have been detained in Turkey this year. Most are Kurds working in the strife-hit southeast.

“The West, with its entire focus on the refugee crisis, has paved the way for Erdogan’s authoritarianism,” said Garo Paylan, a lawmaker in the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP), which has Kurdish roots and is the third biggest party in parliament.

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper which is often at odds with Ozgur Gundem’s pro-Kurdish stance, on Tuesday took on the symbolic role of editor-in-chief.

Dundar was jailed for five years last month over coverage of alleged Turkish arms shipments to Syrian rebels, but is free pending appeal. He is aware he could be prosecuted again after his stint at the helm of Ozgur Gundem.

“If we don’t stand together, we will all lose. The time is now to support each other,” he told Reuters.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Ralph Boulton)