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The latest sign of authoritarianism in Turkey? Arresting Amnesty International staff.

Demonstrators hold up Turkish flags at dusk and an illuminated mosque stands in the background.
Demonstrators gathered in July to mark one year since the attempted coup.
Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the midst of a huge crackdown on dissent and a push to oust foreign aid workers, a Turkish court formally arrested Amnesty International’s Turkey director and five other human rights activists on Tuesday.

The director, Idil Eser, and nine other human rights activists were arrested earlier this month during a raid on a hotel in Istanbul where they were attending a workshop. On Tuesday, four of the activists were released on bail, while the remaining six were formally arrested.

All 10 were being investigated for “committing crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member,” according to Amnesty International, a research and advocacy group that supports human rights around the world.

The organization called the Turkish government claims “a baseless and ridiculous accusation” in a statement released after the initial arrests in early July.

“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, in a statement on Tuesday.

The activists’ arrest is part of a larger crackdown in Turkey

The arrest of the Amnesty International activists comes at a time when the Turkish government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are cracking down on free press, the independent judiciary, and freedom of expression following last summer’s attempted anti-government coup. Since then, Erdoğan has declared a state of emergency, allowing his government to continue the crackdown.

While more than 50,000 Turkish citizens have been arrested and around 100,000 civil servants working for Erdoğan’s government have been dismissed in the year since the coup, the government is also trying to push out foreign NGOs and journalists. According to Vox’s Sarah Wildman, under the state of emergency, the government has shut down more than 170 news organizations, shuttered some 1,500 NGOs, and jailed 81 journalists.

Since he came to power as the prime minister of Turkey in 2003 and was elected president in 2014, Erdoğan has worked to consolidate his own political power. In April of this year, he organized a referendum to give himself even greater control over the state and judiciary.

Erdoğan’s crackdown is even reaching Washington, DC. In May, nine people were injured when members of Erdoǧan’s security team punched and kicked protesters outside of the Turkish ambassador’s residence. The 16 members of the security team now face charges of criminal assault, though they are no longer in the country and thus are not likely to face any punishment unless try to return to the US.

This isn’t the first time the Turkish government has targeted Amnesty International. In June, Turkish authorities arrested Taner Kiliç, Amnesty’s Turkey board chair, accusing him of being a member of the Gülen movement, the service-focused religious organization Erdoğan insists was behind the coup attempt. Kiliç is still imprisoned.

“Today we have learnt that standing up for human rights has become a crime in Turkey,” said Shetty in a statement about the activists’ formal arrest on Tuesday. “This is a moment of truth, for Turkey and for the international community.”

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