Turkey intensified prosecutions against detractors of encrypted smartphone messaging app

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Abdullah Bozkurt / Stockholm

The Turkish government has broadened its hunt for critics and opponents whose names were mentioned in the intercepted content of the encrypted messaging app ByLock, which was available for download in the app stores of the Android and iOS platforms and had been installed. on hundreds of thousands of mobile devices around the world. world.

According to Turkish government documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, the Justice Ministry tasked the provincial attorney general’s office to examine the content of ByLock’s messages and to initiate investigations into people who had never downloaded it. application or had used it but whose names were simply mentioned in the messages.

The move represented a new phase in the broader crackdown by President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan’s government that effectively criminalized the use of most encrypted messaging apps in Turkey as part of a campaign to suppress dissent and stifle opposition groups. Turkey has already investigated, prosecuted, charged and convicted over 100,000 people for their alleged use or download of the app.

The intensified crackdown, this time targeting non-users and those who had not downloaded the app, was revealed in a series of statements circulated among the police, the governor’s office and the state prosecutor’s office. central province of Kayseri, where authorities discussed ways to bring legal proceedings against people.

Documents dated October 4, 2021 and signed by the Acting Police Chief of the Provincial Counterterrorism Department, Hatip Ateş, referred to instructions from the Ministry of Justice in 2019 and suggested that other provinces had also received the order to carry out similar examinations. Acting on government orders, Ahmet Yılmaz, Deputy Prosecutor General in Kayseri, on June 26, 2019, asked the police to review the content of the ByLock messages, identify the people whose names have been cited and initiate criminal proceedings. .

Police statement on the expansion of the ByLock investigation:

Kayseri_police_expanded_byLock_Hatip_Ates

Police found seven names that were cited in the data package sent by Turkish intelligence agency MIT, which illegally obtained ByLock user data and some of the content. One of those pursued by the police was Mehmet Faruk Mercan, a journalist who was the Ankara bureau chief for the national television station Kanaltürk, arrested by the Erdoğan government in 2015. Mercan currently lives in exile in the United States .

According to the documents, a task force from counterterrorism and organized crime units was tasked with reviewing the contents of ByLock. They looked at the data to identify more people who could face prosecution for terrorism allegations, a charge the ErdoÄŸan government often abuses to oppress opponents, critics and dissidents.

Nordic Monitor previously reported how Turkish authorities effectively criminalized the use of other encrypted messaging apps such as Signal, Tango and WhatsApp as well as popular apps like Facebook and TikTok. Although there is no law prohibiting the use of encrypted applications in Turkey, Turkish authorities often treat the downloading and / or use of such applications as evidence in criminal investigations.

Turkey’s notoriously broad and ambiguous counterterrorism legislation, which has become a scourge for dissidents in the hands of the country’s overzealous police and prosecutors, is, to all appearances, susceptible to such interpretation and such. abuse.

Turkish journalist Faruk Mercan

The rationale for criminalizing secure messaging apps can be explained by the police’s belief that these apps were often used by members of the Gülen movement. The government cited the use of the ByLock app as evidence to justify the imprisonment of tens of thousands of critics in Turkey. ByLock was a mobile messaging application that was downloaded over 600,000 times from the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store worldwide.

The Turkish Secret Service claimed to have obtained ByLock’s user database, although it was not revealed how the spy agency came into possession of the data. No mandate was given to the agency to collect data for use in criminal proceedings.

The Gülen group is led by Fethullah Gülen, who has criticized President ErdoÄŸan on various issues, including his growing authoritarianism, helping and encouraging jihadists in the Syrian civil war, and his corrupt politics. ErdoÄŸan’s government branded Gülen a terrorist in 2014, immediately after major corruption investigations made public in December 2013 and which blamed ErdoÄŸan, his family members and his political and business associates. He accused Gülen of instigating corruption investigations, a claim which was denied by Gülen.

ByLock has been used by many people who have nothing to do with the Gülen movement and has become the target of criminal prosecution in Turkey. The most prominent example was the prosecution and conviction of Aydın Sefa Akay, a judge of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT). He was arrested in Turkey on fabricated terrorism charges. Akay was a member of the panel of judges examining the case of a former Rwandan government minister who was convicted of involvement in the 1994 genocide in his country.

He was one of some 4,000 judges and prosecutors who have been served and / or jailed for alleged involvement in a coup or terrorist links that independent observers describe as fabricated charges to subordinate the judiciary in Turkey. .

Order of the public prosecutor of Kayseri to expand the ByLock investigation:

Kayseri_prosecutor_expanded_byLock_Ahmet_Yilmaz

Judge Akay has been accused of having ByLock on his phone. He was believed to have ties to the Gülen movement when he described himself as a Freemason and said he downloaded the app from the Google Play Store to communicate with his colleagues. In June 2017, a Turkish court found Akay guilty of terrorism and sentenced him to seven years and six months in prison.

By criminalizing communication and social networking tools and citing their use as terrorist activity, Turkish prosecutors have investigated more than 500,000 dissidents and put more than 90,000 behind bars without bothering to show how they can. be assimilated to criminal acts and without further substantiating their claims. Although attending press meetings to protest a controversial government practice and communicating on online platforms are legitimate exercises of freedom of assembly and expression, the ErdoÄŸan government differs on these rights and freedoms.

In July 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in the case of a former police officer that the use of the ByLock app is not an offense in itself and does not constitute sufficient evidence for an arrest. The Strasbourg court ruling has come as a source of hope for thousands of people who have been arrested or convicted on terrorism charges based primarily on the intelligence agency report which detailed ByLock users.

Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan.

According to a press release from the Home Office in March 2019, 95,310 people were charged with alleged use of the ByLock app. In its technical report, which the courts rely on for their decision, MÄ°T said 60,473 defendants posted at least one message through ByLock, while 34,837 defendants did not post any messages through the app.

Turkey’s odd policy of treating ByLock as criminal evidence was also highlighted by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which ruled on September 18, 2019, in a complaint filed by two judges arrested on charges terrorism-related only because of their use of ByLock. , that their deprivation of liberty was arbitrary. According to the working group “use [of] the ByLock request… would only have been an exercise of their freedom of expression.

Turkey refused to give effect to this decision.

A US State Department report said, “The government has monitored private online communications using non-transparent legal authority.”

According to statistics published by the Council of Europe (CoE), in January 2020, out of 30,524 prisoners convicted of terrorism in the 47 CoE member states, 29,827 were in Turkey. In other words, 98% of all detainees convicted of terrorism across Europe reside in Turkey. It shows how the government is abusing its anti-terrorism laws to punish critics, opponents and dissidents in this country of 84 million people suffering under the iron fist of President ErdoÄŸan.


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