UN must protest Turkey's "absurd" indictment of human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz

orhan at UN

Now indicted, Orhan Kemal Cengiz spoke at the United Nations in Geneva, on February 22, 2016.

GENEVA, April 14, 2017 — UN chief Antonio Guterres and human rights high commissioner Zeid al-Hussein should urgently protest Turkey’s “absurd” indictment of prominent journalist and human rights defender Orhan Kemal Cengiz, which may constitute an illegal act of reprisal for his visit last year to the UN Human Rights Council to testify about human rights violations by the Turkish government, said UN Watch, a Geneva based non-governmental human rights group. See letter below.
“By indicting a peaceful journalist, lawyer and human rights defender—without a shred of evidence—the Turkish government is in breach of its United Nations and international human rights obligations,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch. “We urge Secretary-General Gutteres and High Commissioner Zeid to speak out today.”
Mr. Cengiz visited the UN Human Rights Council in February 2016, and testified about human rights abuses in Turkey, hosted by the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, a coalition of 25 human rights groups including UN Watch.


UN Watch Letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres
and High Commissioner Zeid al- Hussein

Dear Mr. Guterres and Mr. al-Hussein,
United Nations Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization in special consultative status with the United Nations, urges you to intervene with Turkey concerning its latest arbitrary acts targeting Mr. Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer and journalist. His case is a compelling example of how the Turkish judiciary is being used by the Erdogan regime to intimidate human rights defenders, journalists and intellectuals.
The facts are as follows. A prosecutor in Istanbul has just issued an indictment seeking a triple aggravated life sentence (each brings 40 years in prison), plus another 15 years—yet the indictment fails to adduce a single shred of evidence concerning Mr. Cengiz; and there is none.
The case concerns 30 of the Zaman newspaper’s columnists and employees. The 60-page indictment mostly describes abstract activities of the so-called FETÖ (initials for “Fettullahist Terrorist Organization”), as well as alleged illegal financial activities of this newspaper. It alleges that Zaman columnists were attacking the government to prepare the ground work for the July 15, 2016 unsuccessful coup attempt.
All 30 journalists were accused of being members of FETÖ, for which the prosecutor seeks 15 years prison sentence. Additionally, the prosecutor demands a triple aggravated life sentence, accusing the journalists of involvement in the attempted coup. That journalists are cast as military personnel, who indeed tried to overthrow this government, strains credulity.
The situation of Mr. Cengiz is the most bizarre. The indictment concerns columnists and employees of the Zaman newspaper. Yet Mr. Cenzgiz has never been either, and has never written for the newspaper.
Moreover, unlike with the other columnists who are accused of the aforementioned crimes, the indictment makes not a single reference to any article by Mr. Cengiz. Instead, his name appears in the first page in the list of accused, and then again on the last page. The prosecutor cites his name along with the writers for Zaman and demands the court punish all of them with absurdly long sentences.
Mr. Cengiz never was a journalist with Zaman, but he was their attorney in brining the newspaper’s case to the Constitutional Court when it was seized by government-appointed trustees. The prosecutor was apparently unwilling to admit that he is indicting Mr. Cengiz for his legal practice and human rights work, and so instead he mentions his name in passing, and demands a severe punishment.
Mr. Cengiz is a human rights defender and practicing lawyer who represented and lobbied for a great number of victims in Turkey, including Kurds, Christians, devout Muslims, leftists, right-wing people, LGBT people, Roma and others, who suffered various kinds of human rights violations, such as torture, discrimination, and violations of freedom of religion and expression.
Mr. Cengiz is respected as a liberal in his worldview. He has written columns in some Gulenist newspapers, as well as in staunchly secular publications, like Radikal and Hurriyet Daily News. Common in all is his defense of democracy and human rights; he was never a mouthpiece for any political movement, sect or faction.
The absurd indictment and demand of an extreme prison sentence makes it clear that the Erdogan regime seeks to intimidate Mr. Cengiz. He is now under imminent threat of arrest.
We urge you to demand from the Turkish government the grounds for which he Mr. Cengiz is being indicted, and to vigorously protest this gross breach of the rule of law, and intimidation of human rights defenders. Your actions could prevent his arbitrary arrest.
Hillel Neuer
Executive Director
United Nations Watch
Geneva, Switzerland

About Orhan Kemal Cengiz

  • Human Rights Defender, Lawyer, Journalist
  • Born January 13, 1968
  • Founding member of the Human Rights Agenda Association (Insan Haklari Gundemi Dernegi), established in 2003, which he chaired until 2012.
  • Cengiz also founded the Civil Society Development Center and new sections within the Izmir Bar Association, including a section dealing with torture and ill-treatment. Between 1999 and 2002 he worked as a legal adviser at the Kurdish Human Rights Project in London.
  • In 2007, he received death threats due to his professional activity in the Malatya murder case, in which three Christians were killed by men linked to ultra-nationalist organizations.
  • In 2008, thanks to an Amnesty International campaign, the state provided him with a bodyguard. Mr. Cengiz is now an independent human rights lawyer and expert.
  • Cengiz has been a prolific journalist since the Turkish government’s crackdown on the media, contributing to several newspapers, including Today’s Zaman, Radikal, Al-Monitor, Ozgur Dusunce, and Bugun. He wrote extensively on human rights related topics, from the Kurdish issue to the Armenian Genocide to the Deep State (Ergenekon) case.
  • Currently he is one of the lawyers in the “Tahir Elci” case, named for the Kurdish human rights lawyer and president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association who was killed in November 2015.
  • In February 2016, Mr. Cengiz was a speaker at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, devoting his entire speech to the memory of his beloved friend Tahir Elci.
  • He was arrested on July 21, 2016, at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport while waiting to board a flight to London, where he was supposed to participate in a conference promoted by the Tahir Elci Foundation. Mr. Cengiz was with his wife, the journalist Sibel Semira Hurtas. She was released after a few hours; he was released several days later.

Below: Orhan Kemal Cengiz addressing the adjacent Geneva Summit for Human Rights, February 23, 2016.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz

UN Watch