A court in Belgium on November 16 referred 14 Belgians of Turkish descent to the country’s highest criminal court over Facebook comments targeting residents with ties to the Gülen movement, a religious group outlawed by the Turkish government, while handing down a prison sentence and fines to three others.
The court sentenced one person to six months’ imprisonment for damages incurred and fined two others for defacing a building owned by Fedactio, an umbrella organization with Gülen ties, according to a news report by de Kanttekening.
The Gülen movement is a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is accused by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government of masterminding a failed coup in 2016. Gülen denies the allegations; however, a crackdown launched by Erdoğan saw tens of thousands jailed and over half a million prosecuted.
Belgium has a sizeable Turkish minority, among which Erdoğan has a solid base. Crimes committed against perceived Gülen movement members surged after the Turkish government and media started a campaign against the group, referring to them as “terrorists.”
Inflamed by Turkey’s political atmosphere, Belgians of Turkish descent defaced and vandalized Gülen movement-affiliated buildings and attacked movement members on social media.
At its peak, the Gülen movement operated schools in 160 countries, from Afghanistan to the United States. Since the coup attempt, Turkey has pressured allies to shut down Gülen-run establishments.
The court of first instance ruled that it had no jurisdiction over Facebook posts targeting the Gülen group and referred the case to the Court of Assizes, a non-permanent court in Belgium’s judicial system that only convenes to try the most egregious crimes due to its high operating costs, requiring a jury to assemble. The court has jurisdiction over crimes such as homicide, genocide and crimes against humanity as well as hate crimes.
A person familiar with the matter told Turkish Minute that the case, to be heard some time in 2021, will spark a public debate in Belgium since it will be the first-ever case in which Facebook is a medium for a crime to be tried by the country’s highest criminal court.
According to a statement from Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on November 26, a total of 292,000 people have been detained while 96,000 others have been jailed due to alleged links to the Gülen movement since the failed coup. The minister said there are currently 25,655 people in Turkey’s prisons who were jailed due to links to the Gülen movement.
Since the coup attempt, followers of the Gülen movement have been subjected to a massive crackdown, with the Turkish government and pro-government media outlets demonizing its members.
In addition to the thousands who were jailed, scores of other Gülen movement followers had to flee Turkey to avoid the government crackdown.