Turkish prosecutors have launched an investigation into 53 diplomats from the foreign ministry on charges of terrorist organization membership due to their alleged use of the ByLock smart phone application, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Sunday.
Turkey considers ByLock, once widely available online, a secret tool of communication among supporters of the faith-based Gülen movement since a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 despite the lack of any evidence that ByLock messages were related to the abortive putsch, leading to the arrest of thousands who were using it.
The Gülen movement is accused by the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of masterminding the failed coup and is labeled a “terrorist organization,” although the movement denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
The investigation into the diplomats was initiated by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office after a ByLock Working Team established at the security directorate general to identify ByLock users notified the Ankara Police Department that an alleged ByLock user was currently employed at the foreign ministry.
The ministry employee, identified only by the initials A.U., had an alleged group on ByLock of 54 members, one of whom was not employed by the foreign ministry. Security and ministry officials have definitively identified five of the ByLock users, while the identities of the remaining 49 have been determined without concrete evidence and based on their nicknames and the content of their messages. Security officials notified the foreign ministry that the unidentified ByLock users could be staff at foreign missions.
First secretaries, secretaries, attachés and undersecretaries are among the 53 diplomats who are subjects of the investigation, Anadolu reported. The suspects face charges of membership in a terrorist organization.
Tens of thousands of civil servants have either been dismissed or arrested for using ByLock. Critics say the use of a tech app is not a criminal activity nor is it evidence of membership in a terrorist organization.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in June in the case of a former police officer that use of the ByLock application is not an offense in itself and does not constitute sufficient evidence for arrest. The Strasbourg court’s ruling has come as a source of hope for thousands of people who were arrested or sentenced on terrorism charges based mainly on a National Intelligence Organization (MİT) report that detailed users of ByLock.
The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also stated in October 2018 that detention, arrest and conviction based on ByLock use in Turkey violated of Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to a statement from the interior ministry in March 2019, 95,310 people were charged over alleged use of the ByLock application. In its technical report, which courts use as basis for their decisions, the Turkish intelligence agency stated that 60,473 defendants had at least one message posted using ByLock while 34,837 defendants had not posted any message using the application.
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.