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Purged teachers, TSK personnel among 16 detained over ByLock use despite ECtHR ruling

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Sixteen people, including teachers and members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) who were dismissed from their jobs in Turkey by government decrees in the aftermath of an abortive putsch in July 2016, have been detained across the country on charges of using the ByLock smart phone application, local media reported on Friday.

ByLock, once widely available online, has been considered 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.

According to local media reports, 16 people were detained in an Ankara-based operation simultaneously carried out in 11 provinces across Turkey after the Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office issued detention warrants for 27 people in total on charges of using ByLock, which is related to membership in the Gülen movement.

The Gülen movement is accused by the Turkish 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 detentions come despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that found the use of ByLock not to constitute a criminal offense. The ECtHR ruled in July 2021 in the case of former police officer Tekin Akgün that the use of the ByLock application is not an offense in itself and does not constitute sufficient evidence for an arrest. The Strasbourg court’s ruling came 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. However, detentions and arrests based on ByLock use continued unabated in Turkey.

In 2017 Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals found the use of ByLock to be sufficient evidence for terrorist organization membership. Since then, the appeals court has upheld hundreds of sentences passed by local courts based mainly on ByLock use without checking to see if the user had any message content or if the messages had any criminal content.

The Constitutional Court, too, found no violation of rights of applicants who were sentenced merely based on ByLock use, which it had considered a strong indication for arrest.

The ECtHR’s judgment supersedes the Supreme Court of Appeals and Constitutional Court’s decisions.

The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated in October 2018 that detention, arrest, and conviction based on ByLock use in Turkey violated Articles 19, 21, and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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