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German rights activist on trial in Turkey

October 25, 2017

Peter Steudtner is a modest, reserved man, more interested in non-violent conciliation than terrorism, say his friends. DW profiles the German activist currently on trial for terrorism charges in Turkey.

Peter Steudtner
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Privat/TurkeyRelease Germany

Peter Steudtner, the German citizen whose trial along with 10 other human rights activists began in Istanbul on Wednesday, was far from a Turkey expert.

Read more: Turkish public prosecutor requests release of Peter Steudtner

In fact, the 45-year-old Berliner and father of two was visiting Turkey for the first time in a professional capacity when he was arrested on July 5, three days into a seminar on "information management and dealing with stress and trauma" that he was co-running in a hotel on an island off the Istanbul coast.

The seminar, put together alongside a number of Turkish human rights organizations, including the local chapter of Amnesty International, was aimed at helping activists guard their security and deal with the confidential data of victims of human rights abuses.

According to a support group made up of colleagues of the 11 defendants, the workshop also addressed the psychological trauma of working as a human rights worker - very much Steudtner's specialty.

It was an innocuous, non-political event, which was why Steudtner and the other visitors considered it a safe journey. As one friend told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk at the time, "I think that he's been in situations that he would have considered much more dangerous."

Steudtner specialized in advising human rights defenders
Steudtner specialized in advising human rights defendersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Amnesty International

'Absurd' charges

Many friends repeated this week how absurd the charges that the Turkish prosecutors have brought against Steudtner are: collusion with a pro-Gulenist terrorist organization bent on bringing down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's regime, a crime that carries a potential prison sentence of 15 years.

Friend and colleague Daniel O'Cluanaigh said it was still unclear why the Turkish authorities were even interested in the workshop and its participants. "There's different interpretations: that it might have formed part of a longer strategy against the likes of Amnesty," he said. "I find it very hard to believe that it was particularly aimed at Peter or Ali."

Over the past four years, O'Cluanaigh worked closely with Steudtner and another defendant, Swedish national Ali Gharavi, on various projects dealing with the protection and well-being of human rights defenders.

Steudtner has worked a lot in Kenya and South Africa, though the country he perhaps knows best is Mozambique - where he lived and worked for two years in the late 1990s following political science studies in Berlin. In 2000, he published a report entitled "The Social Integration of Child Soldiers," which drew on his experiences and observations in the East African country, focusing specifically on dealing with conflict stress. He also produced photo reportages about Mozambique while freelancing as a trainer for a number of human rights organizations.

A modest, spiritual man

Ralf Becker, fundraiser and coordinator for "gewaltfrei handeln" ("acting without violence") - an organization that teaches non-violent conciliation - worked with Steudtner for several years and remembers taking a two-week course in non-violent conflict resolution led by him.

Amnesty protest in Berlin
Amnesty International led protests against the trial on WednesdayImage: Imago/C. Ditsch

According to Becker, Steudtner's work as a trainer for gewaltfrei handeln included a "complete range, from non-violent communication, basic spiritual approaches, all the way to crisis analysis and crisis prevention on both a social and an international level."

"He's a very modest, reserved person," said Becker. "He's a quiet person, who doesn't like being in the foreground, even when he's working as a trainer. He often likes to play guitar and sort of create an atmosphere in the background - not someone who would present himself to the public."

O'Cluanaigh painted a similar picture. "Peter is an extremely calm person, extremely thoughtful, very considered in everything he does," he said. "I've never known him to be very anxious ever, never seen him lose his temper - he's extremely good-natured."

Steudtner is also active in a local Protestant church community in eastern Berlin, though Becker said his religious beliefs were not particularly specific. "I think Peter is a very spiritual person, but I wouldn't describe him especially as a consciously practicing Christian, though he did belong to that community in Berlin," he said. "He lives out his basic spiritual attitude and uses it to try to change the world for the better."

As for Turkey's charges against Steudtner, Becker thinks they have little to do with the activist himself. "I think the Turkish government is trying to take hostages in order to swap them with people abroad they would like to have in custody. They want certain people extradited from Germany and from the US, and are taking political prisoners for them."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight