Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights in Turkey: A Lost Cause?

Turkey-human rights-turkish protestors
Riot police detain protesters during a protest against the detention of hunger-striking teacher Semih Ozakca, Ankara, Turkey, 24 August 2017. photo ADEM ALTAN / AFP

Since the attempted coup in July 2016, Turkey’s human rights situation has hit new lows. As tens of thousands languish behind bars, the government has turned its attention to higher profile targets, rooting out critical voices and leaders of the opposition in what appears to be a concerted effort to cow dissenting action in the country.

After parliamentary immunity was lifted, in a move many suspected was aimed at booting the pro-Kurdish HD Party ( Democratic Party of the Peoples) from parliament, several MPs have been thrown in prison. However, the first to receive sentence was a parliamentarian from the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). In June 2017, Enis Berberoğlu was handed a 25-year sentence for leaking evidence to journalists of the government’s collusion with Muslim extremists in Syria. This sparked outrage in the ranks of the CHP, with the party’s leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, ordering a 450km ‘justice march’ from the capital, Ankara, to Istanbul, where Berberoğlu is jailed. Attracting thousands of fellow marchers along the way, Kiliçdaroglu braved the summer heat with an ostensibly a political call for justice that attracted far more attention than previous protests against the government.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) joined in the final rally of the justice march under the banner of ‘justice for all’, but they too have suffered in the crackdown. A MP for the predominantly Kurdish HD Party was handed down a 90-month jail sentence for ‘membership of an armed terrorist organization’ in July 2017, the latest blow for Turkey’s fourth largest political party. The HDP’s leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, still languishes in prison along with some ten other HDP politicians on similar charges. The Turkish state argues that senior figures within the HDP are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed Kurdish militant group that has been at war with Ankara for much of the past 40 years. In a rare interview from prison, Demirtaş, a former human rights lawyer, said that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a fair trial is impossible in Turkey.

In the year since the coup attempt, more than 47,000 people have been arrested, the majority in the weeks following the failed putsch. In April 2017, some 9,000 police officers were suspended and a further 1,000 were detained, as the crackdown on those suspected of association with the cleric Fethullah Gülen’s organization continued. In addition, more than 1,000 alleged Islamists were arrested the same month for allegedly infiltrating the police force. Human rights groups continue to protest these mass arrests. However, Erdogan’s crackdown has not been limited to Turks in Turkey.

The Turkish government has also used arrests and imprisonment to target foreigners. The Turkish-German correspondent Deniz Yücel was arrested on terror charges in February 2017, sparking protests by the German government and accusations of repression of the media. On 1 September, Yucül had spent 200 days behind bars. In August 2017, the government publishes warrants for the arrest of another 35 journalists, affirming fears that the international pressure on Turkey has done little to diminish the attacks on press freedom.

Loup Bureau, a young Frenchman whose Twitter account describes him as a journalism student, was detained while trying to enter Turkey from Iraq. A search of his computer found photos of him posing with Kurdish militants and documentation related to the PKK. International watchdogs have labelled this the latest attempt by Ankara to quash freedom of the press in the country, and for the second time in a year the French government is attempting to secure the release of a French citizen from a Turkish jail. A British tourist was also arrested this summer in Turkey’s south for having fought alongside Kurdish militias in Syria. While apparently holidaying with his partner and mother-in-law, he was detained, pointing to the authorities monitoring the names of Westerners supporting Kurdish groups across the border.

While Turkey’s relation with the European Union (EU) founders, Ankara has made use of Europe-wide arrest warrants to pursue long-time critics of the government.

Just as with attacks on journalists, human rights activists have found themselves in the government’s crosshairs. In early July 2017, six Amnesty International activists were detained in Istanbul during a routine workshop on digital security. The organization’s local director as well as a German and Swedish national were among them. Given backlogs in the judicial system, in part caused by the purges within the judiciary since last year’s coup attempt, the group could face up to two years in jail waiting for their case to come to trial. Like others working in opposition to the government’s current direction, the state prosecutor has charged the human rights campaigners with ‘membership of a terrorist organization’.

It is only now becoming apparent just how close the judiciary and prosecutor offices are to the presidential palace. The main opposition party, the CHP, has maintained that court rulings against politicians is simply an attempt to scare dissenting voices into submission. With nearly half of all Turkish judges and prosecutors dismissed following the attempted coup, and nearly one thousand being prosecuted, the government has sent a powerful message to the surviving state lawyers: fall in line or, at best, lose your job. Meanwhile, the president couches all of his attacks on his enemies as bound by the rule of law. However, critics at home and abroad, including the German foreign minister and one of the leading candidates for the Germany chancellery, has accused Erdoğan of dismantling the rule of law.

The government prosecutors’ overreach has even extended to breaking international law. In June 2017, a Turkish court sentenced Judge Aydin Sefa Akay to a seven-year sentence. As a sitting judge on an UN war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, Akay is granted diplomatic immunity under international law. However, swept up in the purge of suspected Gülenists in September 2016, Akay now faces a lengthy prison term while his work on the Rwandan genocide is held up.

An EU report in March 2017 soundly criticized the prolonged state of emergency in Turkey, including the widespread use of executive orders from the presidency and what it described as the ‘criminalization and prosecution of human rights defenders’. However, the effect of the arrest of so many thousands of Turks has been felt far beyond the imprisoned. Under Turkish law, detention warrants also freeze the assets of the suspect, leaving the families of the detained unable to support themselves.

Other effects have been far more banal, if no less dangerous. In late April 2017, the Turkish government blocked access to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, after the site refused to remove critical references to the government’s ties to Syrian militants and state-sponsored terrorists. Wikipedia is one of the 127,000 websites now blocked in Turkey. While government censorship has grown steadily since 2015, like all areas of human rights in Turkey, the situation has deteriorated markedly since the coup attempt last year.

As rupture with EU accession talks and human rights bodies seems almost inevitably, and the debate on reinstating the death penalty rears its head, the human rights situation in Turkey has taken a desperate turn. With emergency rule still in place and Erdoğan due to take up a newly centralized hold on power in 2019, it is difficult to see change on the horizon.

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