Detention of Ismet Ozcelik Extended by 10 Months

By Aneta Orlowska

The case of Ismet Ozcelik, a Turkish national, has once again highlighted the concerns surrounding justice and the legal profession in Turkey. Ozcelik, an academic who has been held in detention since 2017 on alleged links to a cleric blamed for a 2016 coup attempt, was due for release from prison. However, his departure has been extended by an additional ten months, raising questions about the fairness and independence of the Turkish legal system.

Ozcelik, along with Turgay Karaman, a school principal, was deported from Malaysia to Turkey in 2017, where they were accused of ties to the network of Fethullah Gulen. The Gulen movement, led by an influential Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, aims to provide devout Muslims with the necessary secular education for success in contemporary society while also emphasising the importance of traditional religious teachings. The movement promotes a tolerant form of Islam, highlighting values such as altruism, modesty, hard work, and education (Pew Research Center, 2010).

Since the failed coup attempt, the Turkish government has detained and jailed tens of thousands of people, pending trial, on suspicion of involvement with Gulen’s network. Human rights organizations have criticized this widespread crackdown for its impact on the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.

One of the key pieces of evidence used against Ozcelik was the allegation that he had used a mobile app called Bylock, which Turkish authorities claimed was used exclusively by Gulen’s followers. However, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has clarified that using Bylock cannot serve as reasonable suspicion for arrest or evidence for a conviction. Despite this, Ozcelik’s requests for an expert panel examination to contest the claims against him were denied, violating the principle of equality of arms in the legal process.

In addition to the Bylock allegation, Ozcelik’s participation in a protest and his social media posts criticizing the government’s actions were presented as evidence of his alleged membership in an armed terrorist organization. The UN Human Rights Committee and the ECtHR have emphasized protecting the fundamental rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. They have stated that these activities should not be criminalized without concrete evidence of involvement in illegal or terrorist activities.

Another contentious aspect of the case is the involvement of a private education company, Polat A.S., with which Ozcelik was a shareholder. Turkish authorities accused the company of being a front for carrying out alleged terrorist activities. However, critics argue that no concrete evidence substantiates this claim. Polat A.S. was a legally incorporated company operating under Turkish law and with a license from the Ministry of Education. Using such legal activities as grounds for criminal conviction raises concerns about the validity of the charges against Ozcelik.

The extension of Ozcelik’s detention by ten months has raised further concerns about the erosion of justice and the stifling of the legal profession in Turkey. Human rights defenders and legal experts have consistently expressed worries about arbitrary detention and the use of terrorism charges against individuals who exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest.

The case of Ismet Ozcelik and others like him underscores the need for Turkey to uphold fundamental principles of justice, independence, and respect for human rights. International bodies, including the United Nations, have called for the release of detainees like Ozcelik and have highlighted the importance of providing effective remedies for those who have suffered violations of their rights.

As the detention of Ismet Ozcelik continues, it remains a stark reminder of the challenges facing the Turkish legal system and the urgent need for reforms to protect the rights and freedoms of all individuals.

Note: This article is based on available information and does not constitute legal advice or an official statement of the events described.

  • Initiative, T. A. L. (2023, July 30). How having “the wrong” dish led to imprisonment for terrorism. The Arrested Lawyers Initiative is a volunteer organisation to defend the defenders.
  • İsmet Ozcelik. Tenkil Memorial. (n.d.).
  • Miles, T. (2019, May 29). Turkey was told by U.N. to free and compensate gulen-linked detainees. Reuters.
  • Scf. (2023, November 9). Man imprisoned on Gülen links to spend ten more months behind bars for making prayer beads. Stockholm Center for Freedom.
  • Turkish Minute. (2023, November 9). Man imprisoned on Gülen links to spend 10 more months behind bars for making prayer beads.
  • The United Nations Human Rights Committee has decided that Turkey is unfair. Justice Square. (n.d.).
  • Çetin, T. (2019, June 5). Un asks Turkey to release i̇smet özçelik and Turgay Karaman immediately. BoldMedya.

Teacher Yüksel Yalçınkaya v. Türkiye

ECHR courtroom - Copyright AP Photo

By Maria Popova

In a significant judgement on the 26th of September, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held that Türkiye has to address a systematic problem of terrorism convictions decisively based on using a messaging application by the accused. The Court held that there had been a violation of Article 7 ECHR (no punishment without law), Article 6(1) ECHR (right to a fair trial) and Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association).

Facts of the case

The case had to deal with the conviction of a former teacher, Yüksel Yalçınkaya, who was assumed to have participated in an armed terrorist organisation called the “FETÖ/PDY” formerly known as the “Gülen movement” and considered by the Turkish authorities to be behind the attempted coup d’état of 15 July 2016.

The teacher was arrested in 2016 on suspicion of membership in a terrorist organisation. He was put in pre-trial detention and received his bill of indictment in 2017. According to the authorities, the accusation and the following arrest were based on the following evidence: suspicious banking activity, membership of a trade union, which allegedly had a terrorist link and the use of a mobile application called ByLock, which had reportedly been used for communication purposes by the members of the terrorist organisation.

Following his trial, Mr. Yalçınkaya was sentenced to six years and three months in prison. A decision later upheld by the Court of Appeal in Ankara and the Cassation Court. The decisive evidence in the case was using the mobile application, which was considered exclusively employed by the “FETÖ/PDY”. The Bank Asya account and the participation in the trade union served as supportive evidence due to their affiliation with the terrorist organisation.

Applicant’s submission before the Court of Human Rights

Following his conviction, Mr Yalçınkaya lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights in 2020 due to alleged violations of his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

He relied on Article 6(1) ECHR, which stipulates the right to a fair trial. According to the applicant, there were irregularities regarding the collection and the admissibility of the evidence regarding the ByLock application. Furthermore, according to the applicant, there were difficulties in challenging said evidence, which is an essential procedure constituting a fair trial.

Mr Yalçınkaya also alleged a violation of Article 7 (stipulating that there shouldn’t be a punishment if the act or the omission were not categorised as a crime at the time of committing) and 11 ECHR (stipulating the freedom of assembly and association) because his conviction was based on acts which did not constitute a crime under Turkish law—mainly, the participation in a trade union and the possession of a bank account.

Government’s submission

The Turkish Government argued that a state of emergency justified all measures taken following an attempted military coup. Therefore, according to its representatives, Türkiye has not violated any applicant’s rights under the ECHR. The Government used in its defence article 15 ECHR, which stipulates that in the case of any nation-threatening emergency, the country might derogate from its obligations under the Convention.

Judgement of the Court

Regarding the defence put forward by the Turkish Government regarding Article 15 ECHR, the Court of Human Rights has decided that Article 15 does not allow for a derogation from Article 7 ECHR. Therefore, it will be considered only about the other articles mentioned in the case.

Regarding the violation of Article 7 ECHR, the Court established that it prescribes that only an existing legal provision can define a criminal act and lay out a penalty. Such a law should not be enacted to the detriment of the accused. The Court agreed that article 314(2) of the Turkish Criminal Code and the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which constitute the legal framework under which Mr Yalçınkaya was convicted in Türkiye are clear and well-defined enough for the applicant to understand whether he has committed a criminal offence.

Under Turkish legislation, for the convicted to be liable for participation in a terrorist organisation, there has to be proof of his specific knowledge and intent to be a member of the terrorist group. For example, there had to be an “organic link” with the organisation; that link should be continuous, and they must be well aware that the group’s activities are illegal and the person must possess a specific intent to further such unlawful activities. There should also be proof that the accused willingly participated in the organisation’s hierarchical structure. It is not enough that the law was well defined. The law had to be applied precisely, following all of its requirements regarding a conviction. Something the Turkish authorities failed to do.

The ECtHR held that the Turkish authorities failed to prove every requirement of the law but instead automatically presumed that Mr Yalçınkaya was a member of the “FETÖ/PDY” solely because he was using the app ByLock. That assumption was made irrespective of the nature of his messages or the receivers of his messages. The applicant had no opportunity to defend himself nor challenge such presumptions and allegations. Therefore, his rights under Article 7 ECHR were violated as the article aims to ensure safeguards against arbitrary convictions.

The Court also sided with the applicant regarding the violation of Article 6 ECHR, or the right to a fair trial. The Court held that for Article 6 to be ensured correctly, evidence in a problem had to be collected fairly and legally, and the accused should be able to challenge and review the evidence against him. Those are some of the factors required for a fair trial to be ensured.

In this case, the Turkish courts had failed to ensure the safeguards prescribed by Article 6(1) ECHR. Firstly, there was no valid reason why the ByLock data was kept from the applicant, nor why the applicant was not allowed to comment on the evidence against him, which would have also allowed him to challenge its validity. The Courts have also denied the applicants’ request that the ByLock data be submitted to an independent examination to ensure its validity. The disregard for such safeguards constitutes a violation of Article 6 ECHR.

Regarding Article 11 ECHR, the Court held that the applicant’s conviction of membership in a terrorist organisation based on his participation in a trade union constitutes a violation of his rights. The mere participation in a trade union that has operated lawfully before the coup cannot be foreseen as an indication of criminal conduct.

According to the court

There are currently approximately 8,500 applications on the Court’s docket involving similar complaints under Articles 7 and 6 of the Convention, and given that the authorities had identified around 100,000 ByLock users, many more might potentially be lodged. The problems which had led to findings of violations were systemic. Under Article 46 (binding force and implementation of judgments), the Court held that Türkiye had to take general measures appropriate to address those systemic problems, notably regarding the Turkish judiciary’s approach to Bylock evidence.

Following the decision

The Court’s judgement received criticism from the Turkish Minister of Justice Yılmaz Tunç, who described it as unacceptable due to the ECtHR “overstepping its jurisdiction” by examining the credibility or lack of evidence used in the national trial. On the contrary, the applicant’s lawyer, Johan Heymans, characterised the judgement as a “milestone” and stated his belief that the decision of the Court would set an important precedent for similar Turkish cases.

YÜKSEL YALÇINKAYA v TÜRKİYE App no 15669/20 (ECtHR, 26 September 2023)

European Court of Human Rights, ‘Türkiye must address systemic problem of convictions for terrorism offences based decisively on accused’s use of the ByLock messaging application’ (Press Release issued by the Registrar of the Court, 26.09.2023) accessed 17 September 2023


‘Conviction based on app use violated Turkish teacher’s rights, European court rules’ (Euronews, 26 September 2023) <> accessed 17 September 2023