Turkish universities secretly worked with the police and prosecutor’s office to investigate students who downloaded and used an encrypted messaging app that was available for download at the Android and iOS platform app stores and had been installed on hundreds of thousands of mobile devices around the world.
Confidential documents obtained by Nordic Monitor show that 1,350 university students at one school who were alleged by Turkish intelligence agency MIT to have downloaded the ByLock app were prosecuted. They were not only prosecuted on criminal charges but also faced administrative penalties by their university, which secretly worked with the Turkish authorities.
The documents provide clues about university administrations that were eager to divulge information on students who were alleged to have used and/or downloaded the app. They specifically mentioned Gazi University, a state university in the Turkish capital, and included a communiqué from then-rector İbrahim Uslan that was stamped top secret. Similar practices were believed to have been implemented at other universities, both public and private, across Turkey.
Gazi University’s top secret document that reveals how the university worked with the governor and the police in the prosecution of students in sham cases:Gazi_University_profiling_students
In an urgent communiqué classified as top secret, Uslan informed then-Ankara governor Ercan Topaca that his university had shared information on 1,350 students with the chief public prosecutor’s office, asking that legal action be taken against the students. The communiqué, dated April 27, 2017, also mentioned that the action against the students, who were never charged with any crime, was had been approved by the Higher Education Board (YÖK).
After receiving the information from the university, the governor on May 18, 2017 ordered the police to initiate criminal procedures against the students and asked that he be informed about the conclusion of the investigation. The investigation was referred to the counterterrorism bureau of the Ankara police department.
As instructed by the governor, Ibrahim Bozkurt, head of the counterterrorism bureau, wrote to the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on June 2, 2017, saying the university had shared the information on the students with the police and asked for authorization to pursue a legal probe.
Gazi University has 44,000 students enrolled in various faculties and departments. That means 3 percent of its student population was investigated for simply downloading and using an encrypted messaging application.
Nordic Monitor previously reported how the Turkish authorities effectively criminalized the use of other encrypted messaging applications such as Signal, Tango and WhatsApp as well as popular apps such as Facebook and TikTok. Although there is no law prohibiting the use of encrypted apps in Turkey, Turkish authorities often treat the download and/or use of such apps as evidence in criminal investigations.
Turkey’s notoriously broad and ambiguous anti-terror legislation, which has been turned into a scourge on dissidents in the hands of the country’s overzealous police and prosecutors, is, to all appearances, susceptible to such interpretation and misuse.
Secret police communiqué that sought permission from the prosecutor’s office to investigate 1,350 students for downloading the ByLock app:Police_communique_targeting_university_students
The rationale behind criminalizing secure messaging apps can be explained by the conviction on the part of the police that such apps were often used by members of the Gülen movement. The government singled out use of the ByLock application as evidence warranting the imprisonment of tens of thousands of critics in Turkey. ByLock was a mobile messaging app that was downloaded more than 600,000 times from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store worldwide.
Turkish intelligence claimed to have obtained the ByLock user database, although it was not revealed how the spy agency came into possession of such data. No mandate was provided for the agency to collect data to be used in criminal procedures.
The Gülen group is led by Fethullah Gülen, who has been critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a range of issues including his increasing authoritarianism, his aiding and abetting of jihadists in the Syrian civil war and his corrupt politics. Erdoğan’s government branded Gülen as a terrorist in 2014, immediately after major corruption investigations that were made public in December 2013 and that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and political and business associates. He blamed Gülen for instigating the corruption probes, a claim that was denied by Gülen.
Ankara Governor Ercan Topaca’s secret communiqué for the investigation of 1,350 students for downloading an encrypted messaging app:Governors_letter_to_investigate_university_students
Criminalizing communication and social networking tools and citing their use as terrorist activity, Turkey’s public prosecutors have investigated more than 500,000 dissidents and put more than 90,000 of them behind bars without taking pains to show how they could be equated with criminal acts and without further substantiating their claims. Although participating in press meetings to protest a controversial government practice and communicating over online platforms are legitimate exercises of freedom of assembly and speech, the Erdoğan government differs on such rights and freedoms.
This circumstance has been highlighted by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which ruled on September 18, 2019, in a complaint lodged by two judges arrested on terrorism-related charges solely due to their use of ByLock, that their deprivation of liberty was arbitrary. According to the working group “use [of] the ByLock application … would have been merely an exercise of their freedom of expression.”
Turkey has refused to give effect to this decision.
A US State Department report said, “The government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.”
According to statistics issued by the Council of Europe (CoE), as of January 2020 out of 30,524 prisoners convicted on terrorism charges in the 47 CoE member states, 29,827 were in Turkey. In other words, 98 percent of all inmates convicted of terrorism in all of Europe are resident in Turkey. It shows how the government abuses its counterterrorism laws to punish critics, opponents and dissidents in this country of 84 million that is suffering under the iron grip of President Erdoğan.