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Man behind ByLock app walks free after benefiting from repentance law

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An İstanbul court has declined to impose a sentence on a Turkish-American who holds the license for ByLock, an encrypted messaging app banned in Turkey, since he benefitted from a repentance law, local media reported on Wednesday.

The İstanbul 29th High Criminal Court on Wednesday ruled there was no need to sentence Alpaslan Demir, who changed his name to David Keynes after acquiring US citizenship, to prison, citing the fact that he had turned himself in and gave information to the authorities regarding the accusations against him voluntarily. He benefited from the repentance provision under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).

Keynes was arrested on June 9, 2021, on charges of membership in a terrorist organization, but state media reported Keynes’s arrest more than a month after his arrival in Turkey.

The first hearing in Keynes’ trial was held on Oct. 6, but the court didn’t release him despite reports that Keynes was expecting to be freed under a deal he made with Turkish authorities before coming to Turkey from the US and surrendering to the police. He was released at the next hearing in November.

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 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 European Court of Human Rights (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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