A Turkish court sentenced a person identified only by the initials A.G. to seven years in prison for allegedly using the ByLock smart phone application despite their lawyer’s insistence that the mobile phone was not registered to his client but to someone else with the same name, the Stockholm Center for Freedom reported.
Speaking to the Duvar news website, A.G.’s lawyer Cenk Yiğiter said his client did not have ByLock on his telephone or his computer and that they suspected there was a confusion of names. “However, the court did not investigate our suspicions and instead sentenced our client to prison,” he said.
Lawyer Levent Mazılıgüney, who has been following ByLock cases, said it was common for courts to sentence the wrong person due to a confusion with names.
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.
Following an investigation, the court could not find any other evidence connecting A.G. to the movement. Yiğiter added that the court did not have access to the content of the messages and therefore even if the application had been used by his client, there was no evidence it was used for terrorist activity.
“Courts ask the police if they can determine that a suspect has used ByLock. The police check if there was a ByLock username that is similar to that of the suspect. If they can find a similar username, they send it to the court saying the suspect could have used ByLock. Many local courts and the Supreme Court of Appeals accept this as tangible evidence that the suspect is linked to the movement,” Yiğiter explained.
Mazılıgüney said there were many examples in which random people were subjected to criminal investigations due to a ByLock username resembling their names. “This application can be downloaded by anyone, and its use is not restricted to one group or community,” he said. “Therefore, the court cannot automatically assume a person is linked to the movement based on the applications they use.”
Tens of thousands of people, including civil servants, have either been dismissed from their jobs or arrested for using ByLock. Critics say the use of a tech app is not 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 had been 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 messages 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.