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Impediments to Defending Human Rights in Turkey Outlined in New Amnesty International Report


[dropcap size=small]H[/dropcap]uman rights are being eroded in Turkey. Although issues existed prior to July 15th, 2016, the coup attempt and subsequent State of Emergency (SoE) has seen an abolishment of rights like freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment. Over 30 emergency decrees have been issued without oversight by the parliament and courts. These decrees have seen over 150,000 dismissed from their jobs, over 100,000 face prosecution, and over 1,300 NGOs shut down. Those who defend human rights or who show dissenting views have been particularly targeted, in what Amnesty International calls in its new report “a deliberate and widespread attack”. This attack on human rights defenders has further impeded efforts to protect those targeted under the SoE; it additionally impedes efforts to protect others at risk such as the Kurdish, women, children, refugees, and LGBTI.


Under the SoE, over 1,300 NGOs have been shut down without valid reasoning. There are no effective avenues to challenge these shut downs; a State of Emergency Commission has been established to hear appeals, but it is inefficient and non-impartial. To date, the Commission has only approved 310 out of 10,010 finalised cases, a 3% success rate. There are almost 100,000 cases still under examination. Among those NGOs shut down, as listed by the Amnesty report, are: Turkey’s leading child rights organisation, Gündem Çocuk; 11 women’s rights organizations; lawyers’ organizations such as the Contemporary Lawyers’ Association (ÇHD) and Lawyers for Freedom Association (ÖHD); and organizations providing humanitarian support to displaced people and refugees. Needless to say, this has severely affected human rights work. Dismissals via emergency decree have too targeted human rights defenders.


Dismissals and shut downs have exacerbated the issues involved with defending Kurdish rights. This has long been a dangerous job, but now, as Amnesty International states: “The few remaining independent voices advocating for human rights in the [Kurdish] region live with an even more severe, ever-present threat of detention and prosecution”. For instance, JINHA, a news outlet for Kurdish women, was shut down by emergency decree and the editor, Zehra Doğan, was imprisoned. Raci Bilici of the Human Rights Association Diyarbakir branch was dismissed from his teaching job and is currently facing imprisonment. In 2017, Bilici was targeted by the pro-state newspaper Akit, leading to threatening phone calls. These smear campaigns against human rights defenders have become common under the SoE. Alongside pro-state media, state authorities have also accused these people of being ‘terrorists’, ‘defenders of the coup’, ‘unpatriotic’, ‘foreign agents’, ‘spies’, and ‘enemies of the state’. This labelling can not only lead to threats and violence, but also removes the presumption of innocence and can result in social exclusion.


Both Doğan and Bilici were persecuted under the vague anti-terrorism laws which have been used to criminalise dissent and erode freedom of expression. On top of 189 media outlets being shut down via decree, journalists and editors have been charged under Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terrorism Law which references “making propaganda for an armed terrorist organization”. Some, like Dr Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, have been convicted on propaganda charges simply for sharing news articles on Twitter. Human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Gengiz is facing terrorist organisation membership charges for defending Zaman journalists. Moreover, Amnesty International’s own Taner Kılıç and İdil Eser are facing terrorist organisation membership charges. Kılıç has been accused of using the Bylock messaging application, a baseless charge that, even if true, should not amount to terrorism. Eser was arrested along with nine other prominent human rights defenders (known as the Istanbul 10) whilst holding a human rights workshop. As Amnesty’s report articulates, this sends a clear message: “criticism of rights violations will not be tolerated”.


Arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment are being used to maintain this climate of fear in Turkey. The mass purge of lawyers and judges, a disregard for constitutional court decisions, and various other problems reflect a system that is unpredictable and entirely political. Countless human rights defenders, like the aforementioned, have been held arbitrarily. Arbitrary detention has also been used to silence dissent, such as criticism of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin. By 26 February, just over a month after the Afrin operation commenced, 845 people had been detained for social media posts; 643 people were subject to judicial proceedings; and 1,719 social media accounts were under investigation. A case example given by Amnesty is that of the Turkish Medical Association (TBB), a professional body of 83,000 physicians. After the TBB released a statement calling for an end to the Afrin operation, its headquarters were raided, as were the homes of its Central Council members. 11 members are now facing criminal investigations, and detention has spread to those who showed support for the TTB on social media.


The right to freedom of assembly has also been repressed throughout Turkey’s history, further eroded by the SoE. A ban on public demonstrations in Diyarbakir has been in place since August 2016. For three consecutive years, Pride (LGBTI) events have been banned in Istanbul and Ankara. Those who defy the ban have been met with excessive force by police, with dozens arrested. In November 2017, SoE powers were used to ban a German LGBTI film festival in Ankara. Just days later, Ankara then announced an indefinite ban on all events by LGBTI organisations. Another ban was imposed in Istanbul November 2017 on a march and demonstration by LGBTI organisation Pink Life. These bans impede the work of LGBTI rights defenders, and encourage homophobia and transphobia.


These trends are extremely worrying. There is almost no independent civil society left in Turkey. Human rights defenders and civil society members who are left are now afraid to speak up, for good reason. Amnesty International’s new report recommends intervention by the international community, particularly European Union member states and the Council of Europe. Turkish human rights defenders and the civil society need to know they are not alone. Amnesty also calls for Turkish authorities to end the SoE and related draconian measures. They must release all human rights defenders and civil society members, reopen NGOs, and refrain from further persecutions. Authorities must also stop using smear campaigns, and investigate any threats made against human rights defenders and other civil society members. Human rights are vital to any society, and targeting defenders has wide-reaching implications for all those at risk of rights violations.

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