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Turkish court jails 6 human rights activists pending trial

People walk outside the court, in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, July 17, 2017. Ten Turkish human rights activists who were detained by police while attending a training workshop appeared before court officials in Istanbul on Monday to face possible charges or be released from custody.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

People walk outside the court, in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, July 17, 2017. Ten Turkish human rights activists who were detained by police while attending a training workshop appeared before court officials in Istanbul on Monday to face possible charges or be released from custody.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

ISTANBUL — A Turkish court on Tuesday jailed Amnesty International's Turkey director and five other human rights activists pending trial for allegedly aiding an armed terror group — making them the latest suspects in a massive government crackdown initially launched against alleged supporters of last year's failed coup but has since broadened to include government opponents.

In a decision which Amnesty International called a "crushing blow for rights in Turkey," the court in Istanbul also decided to release four other activists from custody pending the outcome of a trial, but barred them from travelling abroad. They will also have to report regularly to police.

The 10 — Amnesty's Turkey director Idil Eser, seven human rights defenders and their German and Swedish trainers —were detained in a July 5 police raid on a hotel on the island of Buyukada, off Istanbul, where they were attending a digital security workshop.

The detentions added to the growing concerns over rights and freedoms in the country where the post-coup crackdown has resulted in more than 50,000 arrests and the dismissal of more than 110,000 from government jobs. The crackdown has netted journalists, politicians and activists. Several media outlets and NGOs have been shut down.

"This is not a legitimate investigation, this is a politically motivated witch-hunt that charts a frightening future for rights in Turkey," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary general.

He said: "Today we have learnt that standing up for human rights has become a crime in Turkey. This is a moment of truth, for Turkey and for the international community."

Shetty also called on countries to put pressure on Turkey to release the activists, saying: "leaders around the world must stop biting their tongues and acting as if they continue business as usual."

Amnesty said the 10 are suspected of "committing crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member."

Germany's government is calling for the release of the German trainer, who it identified as Peter Steudtner.

"We are strongly convinced that this arrest is absolutely unjustified," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, according to the dpa news agency.

Merkel added that the German government would "do everything, on all levels" to secure his release.

The U.S. condemned the detentions of the activists and called for their immediate release.

"Prosecutions like these with little evidence or transparency undermine Turkey's rule of law and the country's obligation to respect individual rights," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington. "We urge Turkish authorities to drop the charges, release those who've been detained and remove the provisions of the state of emergency that allow indiscriminate prosecution of individuals."

Turkish media reports said prosecutors, requesting the arrests, presented as evidence records of their communications with suspects linked to Kurdish and left-wing militants as well as the movement led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of orchestrating last year's failed coup attempt.

Amnesty said accusations against Eser tried to link her to three terror organizations through her work with the advocacy group. Prosecutors had referred to two campaigns led by Amnesty, which weren't authored by Amnesty Turkey, the rights group said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month rejected the label "activists" when asked about the 10, and made vague accusations, saying the group was involved in a meeting that had the "nature of a continuation" of the coup attempt.

Turkey says the crackdown is necessary to weed out Gulen's followers amid a continued threat from his movement and to eradicate terror groups.

In April, Erdogan went on to win by a narrow majority a referendum on a series of constitutional amendments that will increase the powers of his office with few checks and balances and abolish the position of prime minister, a development critics fear will lead Turkey toward authoritarian rule.

Earlier this month, European Parliament has advised the European Union to freeze accession talks with Turkey amid growing concerns over declining human rights, media freedoms and rule of law issues in Turkey. Frequent comments by Erdogan vowing to re-instate the death penalty have also raised alarm.

Turkey's main opposition party called the court's decision a "shame for Turkey" and raised concerns about whether they would get a fair trial.

"In Turkey, the judiciary is far away from being objective and independent," said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a former human rights lawyer and legislator from the opposition Republican People's Party, CHP. "It's impossible to speak o fair hearings in an environment where there is no objective and independent judiciary."

Earlier, this month, the CHP's leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, completed a 25-day "March for Justice" from Ankara to Istanbul to oppose the government's crackdown and highlight alleged government interference in the judiciary.

In addition to Eser, activists from the Helsinki Citizens Assembly and the Human Rights' Agenda Association were jailed. The four activists that were released on bail are from the Citizen's Assembly, the Women's Coalition, Equal Rights Watch Association and the Rights initiative.

Eser is the second top Amnesty International official in Turkey to be arrested. Last month, Amnesty's Turkey chair, Taner Kilic, was arrested for alleged links to Gulen's movement.

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Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara. Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Matthew Lee in Washington, contributed to this report.

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This story has corrected the penultimate paragraph to show that four activists were released on bail, not six.

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