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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Renewed Deterioration of Human Rights in Turkey

Human Rights in Turkey
Turkish police surround protesters during a demonstration in support of jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, in Istanbul, on February 15, 2022. Ocalan, arrested 23 years ago, is serving a life sentence on Imrali island, near Istanbul.
ZEYNEP KURAY / AFP

Introduction

The importance of human rights as a factor in evaluating the justness of societies is increasing daily, despite the different interpretations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations (UN) on  10 December 1948.

These varying interpretations among societies stem from cultural differences. However, in terms of the outcome, all interpretations remain within the same sphere. They never stray from the language of the universal declaration, which addresses the right to life, liberty, security, movement, nationality, education and justice among human beings. The document also articulates freedom of expression, opinion and assembly—as well the rights of minorities, women, children, detainees, refugees and displaced persons, in addition to protection against racial discrimination and torture.

Turkey is one of the countries that has declared its commitment to the language of the 1948 UN declaration and the 30 articles contained therein, as well as to the 1954 Geneva Convention. However, human rights reports have shown evidence of the numerous violations that we will outline in this report in both a general and detailed manner, in addition to violations of the special charters that followed the declaration.

Although the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the attached charters are not legally binding for countries, they do constitute a moral obligation and contribute to classifying countries as just or seeking to be such—each according to its commitment to the contents of the articles.

In early March 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a human rights action plan consisting of 11 items and nine goals. This was prepared by the Turkish Ministry of Justice with the vision of “a free individual, a strong society, and a more democratic Turkey.” The plan ultimately aims to establish a new civil constitution, but the application remains the crux of the matter and the focus of the test.

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press is the commitment to respect free communication and expression of opinion through all available media, whether in print or online. It also entails a press unfettered by excessive state interference and protected under the constitution and the law. Opposition parties should be allowed to publish in the official media, particularly during election periods.

An earlier report published on Fanack explained that the Turkish press has not been subject to pre-publication censorship since the early 1990s, and that no newspaper has been banned in Turkey in the 21st century. The same report, however, also indicated that dozens of journalists working in the extremist Kurdish press have been arrested, while many Kurdish and Turkish extreme left newspapers have been banned. More than 100 journalists  were also accused of terrorism in 2012.

Human Rights in Turkey
Police officers arrest AFP photographer Bulent Kilic while covering a Pride march in Istanbul that had been banned by authorities on June 26, 2021. Bulent Kilic was detained by Turkish security forces on June 26, 2021 while covering a Pride march in Istanbul that had been banned by authorities, witnesses and press freedom campaigners said. AFP was in contact with Turkish authorities demanding the release of Bulent Kilic, an award-winning photographer. Haco Biskin / Gazete Duvar / AFP

Specialized international organisations indicated that 95 per cent of the media in the country were under the control of the government, a state of affairs that drove the Turkish opposition to resort to publishing on social media. For example, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who launched his new party following a dispute with the legitimate government, was unable to find any outlet willing to provide coverage for his party. So he resorted to launching via Facebook.

According to opposition sources, the few opposition newspapers and channels active in the Turkish press explained that they had faced numerous crises and a lot of pressures from the government. They said they were hounded with taxes and huge fines, or by having some of their programs shuttered.

Allegedly insulting the president played a role in the persecution of the media and journalists, with Erdogan warning in an interview with the private NTV channel that “this crime will not go unpunished.” Such allegations led to the arrest of Turkish TV presenter Sedef Kabaş as well as some German journalists.

In a measure seen by some as an attempt to silence critics, Erdogan on 29 January 2022, warned the media against publishing news that “contradicts the country’s values ​​and morals.” The Turkish president  said: “Necessary measures will be taken against harmful content in the written press and oral and visual media.”

Journalists in Turkey fear further restrictions on their work after the government tightened the rules for issuing accreditation. According to the new regulations, journalists are prohibited from doing anything that “darkens the reputation” of the profession and harms its “honour,” a move Turkey is likely to use to stifle critical voices.

The report issued by the documentation unit of the Human Rights Association and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey indicated that 2020 saw numerous arrests, investigations and lawsuits in addition to threats and physical attacks on journalists because of the news they released. Various penalties (advertising cuts, broadcast suspensions, etc.) were also imposed on journalists and broadcasting institutions.

The report documented the arrest of 62 journalists, 14 of whom were released on condition of judicial oversight, in addition to assaults on five journalists and the targeting of two press institutions. Some 253 journalists were prosecuted while the Directorate of Communications cancelled 28 press cards.

In its 2021 report, the same body monitored the arrests of 45 journalists and attacks on ten others—one of whom resided in Germany. Furthermore, the authorities prevented at least ten journalists from carrying out their duties during news coverage, with six journalists subjected to violence by law enforcement officers while conducting their work. One journalist was found dead under suspicious circumstances.

NGOs consistently condemn press freedom violations in Turkey, especially since the 2016 coup attempt. Turkey ranks 153 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Observers say that it is crucial that Turkey’s treatment of journalists and their working conditions be placed under the oversight of international press organisations. They also stress the importance of following up on the implementation of Turkey’s agreements, to ensure greater press freedom and diversity for the media.

Freedom of Expression

The protection and effective use of freedom of expression represents one of the lifelines of a democratic society. The free circulation of different ideas and opinions in the public domain, such as an environment for open discussion, independent media and an active civil society, is deemed essential to political pluralism. Forming public opinion about social demands–criticising political decision-makers, and citizens’ control over the authorities exercising public power–is only possible under certain conditions in which freedom of expression is protected and effectively exercised.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for freedom of expression and, in the broadest sense of the term, outlines the human rights of every individual. While defending this right is an essential part of Amnesty International’s work, freedom of thought and expression has subsequently been legally protected by a host of international and regional treaties.

Unfortunately, despite the end of Turkey’s state of emergency in July 2018, the political authority’s restrictions on freedom of thought and expression—particularly pressure and increased censorship on social media—continued in 2020 and 2021.

Human rights reports on freedom of expression indicated that draft legislation amending the law “Regulating Broadcasting on the Internet and Fighting Against Crimes Committed Through Internet Broadcasting” was adopted by the Turkish Parliament on 29 July 2020. Subsequently, scrutiny of social media posts increased.

According to Ministry of Interior data, 29,193 social media accounts were examined from 1 January 2020, to 1 November 2020, and lawsuits were filed against 12,163 social media users. A total of 7,127 social media accounts in Turkey were checked in connection with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic alone, and 496 people were arrested based on those posts.

Human rights reports indicated that the government restricted publishing on social media, and banned access to many news sites and websites through court decisions.

According to Ministry of Interior data, 98,714 social media accounts were examined in the first nine months of 2021, 39,601 people were subject to action and 1,175 people were arrested. Access to at least 945 online news items, 133 pieces of content, 53 websites belonging to seven different media outlets, at least 41 publications and five social media accounts were also blocked by court decisions.

In a statement published in December 2021, Erdogan said: “No social media company, whatever its size or stature, can bypass the law.” The president considered social media to have become a major threat to democracy. In November 2021, the European Court of Human Rights indicted Turkey in two separate cases for violating the freedom of expression of Feliz Kerastcioglu Demir, a journalist and member of parliament whose immunity had been lifted in 2016.

According to observers, restrictions and censorship on social media appear to be increasing. This has prompted defenders of human rights to demand that more space be given to freedom of expression on communication platforms, and that balanced controls be established to consider the state’s security concerns without violating the principles of free expression.

Kurds and Minorities

Turkey signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on 13 October 1972, and ratified it on 16 September 2002.

As part of its reservations, Turkey announced that the provisions would be implemented with the parties with which Turkey has diplomatic relations, and on the territories where Turkish legislation, including its constitution, is applied. Turkey did not consider itself bound by Article 22, which pertains to the disputes that arise between parties on the interpretation or application of the convention. It stipulates that all parties to the dispute shall be referred to the International Court of Justice for adjudication.

The Kurdish issue remains one of the biggest obstacles to Turkey’s democratic transition, according to observers. The climate of armed conflict that began immediately after the general elections on 7 June 2015 casts a shadow over the file.

Two Kurds were killed and seven others were injured in racist attacks in 2020, according to human rights reports. However, a statement based on information issued by the Human Rights Association of Turkey indicated that seven people were killed and 32 were injured in 14 racist attacks during the first 10 months of 2020.

Human rights reports have monitored numerous violations against Kurdish neighbourhoods comprising nearly 1.8 million people. Curfews were announced in 32 neighbourhoods three times for a total of 21 days, and in 103 villages three times, for a total of nine days in Bitlis between 1 January. 2021, and 18 November 2021.

During the same period in 2021, curfews were declared 17 times in Mardin, including in 66 neighbourhoods nine times for a total of ten days, and in one small village once for one day.

Violations were not limited to the curfew, but also included the killing of nine people in racist attacks, as well as the arrest of numerous elected Kurdish politicians, according to reports. Among these were Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the two former co-chairs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party.

In 2020 and 2021, Alevis’ demands for equal citizenship rights were not met. This violated the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights’ decisions regarding the compulsory abolition of religious denominations.

It should be noted that during the meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 2 December 2021, the Court of Cassation began adjudicating in favour of the Alevis. Turkey was again sternly warned to implement the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights regarding the religious minority.

Freedom of Assembly

The fundamental value of freedom of assembly and demonstration in democratic societies stems from the ability of citizens to participate in the public sphere through peaceful actions–influencing the process of forming the opinion and will of participants and securing other relevant liberties.

Restrictions and violations that limit freedom of assembly and demonstration were the overarching norm in Turkey, from 2020 through 2021 according to human rights reports People and groups from almost every social stratum–especially members of political parties, workers, students, lawyers, women, environmental and rights defenders—could not exercise their freedom to assemble and demonstrate as a result of law enforcement interventions.

Although the state of emergency ended on 19  July 2018, the documentation centre of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, registered 101 bans from activities in 24 provinces and six regions in the first 11 months of 2021. One of the clearest examples is the city of Van, with a population of 1.136 million citizens. Gatherings and demonstrations were continuously banned for five years in a row in the municipality.

Reports indicate that the arbitrary and excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies is the main obstacle to exercising the right to assemble and demonstrate. In 2021, the authorities interfered with at least 291 peaceful meetings demonstrations, banned 88 events, arrested 3,540 people, and subjected at least 3,671 people to torture and other ill-treatment, according to reports

The interventions affected various types of demonstrations; 22 of them related to women’s rights, 57 were student demonstrations, 29 were labour demonstrations, 11 were for political parties and 17 gatherings were to protest poor economic conditions.

Among the key obstacles to freedom of assembly and demonstration are the investigations and lawsuits filed against people who want to exercise these freedoms. According to Ministry of Justice data, investigations were launched  against 6,770 people for opposing the Public Prosecution Office of the Meetings and Demonstrations Law No. 2911 in 2020. Cases were filed against 3,171 of them.

During the year 2020, 115 gatherings were banned in 35 governorates, 1,929 people were arrested after being subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in 731 demonstrations, and 7,331 people were investigated.

Previous reports published by the Human Rights Association of Turkey revealed that a total of 4,771 violations occurred between 2015 and 2019 in Turkey with regard to the right to assemble and demonstrate. Authorities arrested more than 20,000 people because of their participation in demonstrations during that period. The charges against the demonstrators ranged from “violating the law on demonstrations,” “carrying out terrorist propaganda,” “insulting the president,” “resisting the police forces,” “damaging public property” and “belonging to a terrorist organisation.”

Observers noted that the restrictions on freedom of assembly give rise to fears that those participating to demand reforms they deem necessary would continue to be prosecuted. The government believes the place for such demands is in official institutions rather than the street.

Women

In a previous report by Fanack, we explained that on 20 December 1985, Turkey confirmed its accession to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The only reservation Turkey expressed was related to Paragraph 1 of Article 29, which pertains to disagreements between parties over the interpretation or application of the Convention. It calls  for equal rights for women to acquire nationality and ensures that marriage to a foreigner does not automatically change the nationality of the wife.

Human Rights in Turkey
Demonstrators chant slogans and holds placards and flares during a protest
against gender-based violence on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in Istanbul, on November 25, 2021. ZEYNEP KURAY / AFP

Ideological differences are a major point of contention in the interpretation and application of laws on women’s rights between Turkey and the European Union (EU). On more than one occasion, the EU expressed its dissatisfaction with human rights violations in Turkey, most notably in regards to women’s rights and Turkey’s withdrawal from the treaty against violence against women known as the Istanbul Convention. The treaty sparked a wave of controversy inside and outside Turkey. Supporters of the Convention and related legislation argue that stricter implementation is needed.

However, many conservatives in Turkey and particularly within Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party say the agreement undermines family structures that protect society. In a statement to the Administrative Court, the Turkish president’s office said, “Our country’s withdrawal from the convention will not lead to any legal or practical failure to prevent violence against women.” Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay supported Erdogan’s move, saying that their country did not need to imitate others in protecting women’s rights.

Human rights statistics indicate that one woman is killed every day in Turkey. In 2021, the report of the documentation unit of the Human Rights Association and the Turkish Human Rights Foundation registered the killings of at least 290 women and 30 children in domestic violence. In addition, according to the report, 89 women were raped, 412 others were harassed, 642 were forced into prostitution and 732 were subjected to violence.

Reports issued by the same authority indicate that 2020 witnessed a decline in violence against womens compared to previous years. The number of women killed reached 260, at least 92 women were raped, 136 were harassed, and 731 were subjected to violence–while many women’s demonstrations were halted and their organizers arrested.

Figures indicate that attacks on women in Turkey increased in 2021 compared to 2020. This problem requires enacting new legislation that guarantees women’s rights in the country while considering the ideological differences that are specific to Turkey, women’s associations have assessed.

Refugees and Migrant Workers

Turkey continues to host the largest number of refugees from around the world, numbering around 4 million, including more than 3.7 registered Syrian refugees as of March 2022, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In 2020, concurrent with clashes with the Turkish Armed Forces units in the Syrian city of Idlib, this issue was gravely compromised when Turkey’s border gates with Europe were opened. Thousands of refugees arrived at the Pazarkule Border Gate in Edirne, some through their own means and others by buses organised by the municipalities. On 5 March 2020, an asylum-seeker was killed and five others were injured when authorities fired upon those waiting for the border to open. At the time, Interior Minister Suleiman Soylu said the number of asylum-seekers crossing from Meric into Greece had reached 142,175.

Human Rights in Turkey
A collector works at a dumping ground in Istanbul on November 18, 2021. Considered the poorest of Turkey’s poor, Afghans have joined Kurds, the Laz, Roma and other ethnic minorities and undocumented migrants in doing work others simply refuse. For less than $10 a day, they roam the streets of Istanbul, a megapolis of nearly 16 million people straining under the weight of a Turkish currency crisis and a flood of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict-riven states. Diving headfirst into dumpsters, they dig up plastic bottles, glass and other waste that they then sort and sell in bulk — a self-organised, unregulated business that keeps the city clean. But as public sentiment against migrants and other foreigners in Turkey turns, the state-appointed prefecture of Istanbul has declared this work bad for “the environment and public health”. Bulent KILIC / AFP

The data indicate that 85 refugees killed were in three boat-sinking incidents near Izmir, six in racist attacks and five in shootings by security forces. Additionally, 33 detainees were tortured and faced ill-treatment.

The President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission expressed to Erdogan in 2021 their concerns about human rights in Turkey, although they stressed the importance of partnership with the country. While European Council President Charles Michel said that “the European Union is Turkey’s largest partner and is grateful to Turkey for receiving refugees,”European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasised that Turkey is an “important partner” and underscored the EU’s determination to help Ankara respond to the needs of refugees.

These statements undoubtedly illustrate the importance of Turkey in dealing with the refugee crisis. However, human rights reports indicate that many refugees were subjected to all forms of discrimination, abuse, hate speech and economic exploitation in 2021. Among the most prominent examples of this disposition are the decisions taken by the municipalities of Bolu and Istanbul’s Fatih neighbourhood, which prohibit renting homes to foreigners—including those who have residency permits.

Reports also indicate that 71 refugees died as a result of various accidents and murders, An additional31 were arrested for publishing photos of themselves eating bananas in a “provocative” way.

Human rights organisations say that conditions for Syrian workers in Turkey are dire.  They receive salaries that are significantly below the minimum wage and are not allowed to form union or professional groupings, nor  do they receive legitimate or regular contracts that allow them to sue those violating their rights.

With regard to Turkish workers, reports indicated that in 2020 arbitrary dismissal was used as a weapon to purge state institutions of opponents. Some 151 elected representatives were arbitrarily dismissed from their positions as heads of municipalities that leaned toward opposition parties. These included supporters of Fethullah Gülen who were dismissed allegedly for belonging to a “terrorist organization.” Seventy-three elected opposition mayors were arrested and sentenced to a total of 694 years, 998 months and 338 days in prison, while judicial proceedings continue for the others. Another 42,000 citizens were dismissed from their jobs for allegedly supporting the Gülen movement. A further 14,000 were suspended on charges of communicating with members of the Gülen movement. 

The issue of human rights in Turkey between 2020 and 2021 witnessed numerous violations within the many areas that we monitored in this report. The figures indicate that most human rights sectors are witnessing an escalating rate in violations. While observers say that internal political conflicts are the most prominent reason for the increase, human rights organisations say the best way to control these violations is to support human rights and civil bodies to exert more pressure. They believe this could lead to enacting legislation in parliament to serve as a gateway to reducing the violations.