ISTANBUL (AP) — A court in Istanbul on Wednesday ordered eight human rights activists released from prison pending the outcome of their trial on charges of belonging to and aiding terror groups.
The defendants, including Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi, were detained in a police raid while attending a digital security training workshop in July. Their cases have heightened concerns of an authoritarian turn under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The court ruled on the trial's opening day to free eight of the 10 activists being tried at least until the proceedings end. The other two had been let out of custody.
An 11th activist, Amnesty's Turkey chairman, is being tried separately in another city and remains jailed.
The 10 defendants have been charged with plotting an uprising and aiding Kurdish and left-wing militants. They also stand accused of abetting the movement led by a U.S.-based cleric the Turkish government blames for a 2016 coup attempt. They face up to 15 years in prison, if convicted on all charges.
"We are really grateful for everybody who supported us, legally, diplomatically, and with solidarity," Steudtner, visibly emotional, said upon his release from prison.
Gharavi said: "We have a big new family now, thank you everyone, wherever you are, however you did it, you got us out, thank you very much."
Amnesty welcomed the activists' release and vowed to continue to defend human rights in the country.
"Today, finally, we celebrate that our friends and colleagues can go back with their loved ones and can sleep in their own beds for the first time in almost four months," said Amnesty's secretary general, Salil Shetty. "Tonight we take a brief moment to celebrate, but tomorrow we will continue our struggle."
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also welcomed the court's decision to free Steudtner and seven other activists and said Berlin would continue to seek the release of other Germans held in separate cases. He said the ruling showed German calls for a fair trial had been heeded.
The European Union's commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn said on Twitter: "First step into right direction. Now further releases must follow, unfounded charges dropped."
The trial was adjourned until Nov. 22.
Earlier, as their trial opened, the defendants denied the accusations and asked to be released.
"I dedicated my life to truth and justice, and that is all I ask of this court," Ozlem Dalkiran of the Citizens' Assembly organization testified, according to Amnesty's International Director for Europe John Dalhuisen.
Human rights groups say the defendants are accused of "trumped-up" charges.
Amnesty Turkey chairman Taner Kilic, who was imprisoned in June, is appearing before a different court for alleged links to cleric Fethullah Gulen. He is accused of using an encrypted mobile messaging application allegedly employed by Gulen's network.
Gulen himself has denied masterminding the coup attempt.
"There is not a shred of evidence against the 11 human rights defenders on trial today," Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's Turkey researcher, told The Associated Press.
"For 11 human rights defenders to be . picked up after a routine human rights seminar is an escalation of repression in Turkey," Gardner said.
The trial is one of several cases that have deepened a rift between Turkey and European nations, notably Germany, which considers Steudtner and some 10 other German or German-Turkish citizens jailed in Turkey to be political prisoners.
Steudtner, one of the digital workshop's trainers, told the court Wednesday that none of the accusations in the indictment linked him to a terror group and demanded his "release and acquittal," Amnesty said.
His jailing prompted the German government to toughen its stance toward Turkey by revising its travel advice and threatening to withhold backing for investments there.
Gabriel, the German foreign minister, said: "we will not let up in pushing for a solution and release in these cases, too."
Turkey has arrested more than 50,000 people since the failed coup and sacked at least 110,000 others from government jobs. The crackdown was initially launched to deal with alleged coup-plotters, but critics say it has expanded to include other government opponents, such as academics, journalists and legislators.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara. AP writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.