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Human Rights in Turkey: A Tired Tune

Turkey- vigil for justice
Lawyers take part in a rally to “defend justice” called by organisers as a “vigil for justice”, on April 19, 2019, in front of the courthouse in Ankara. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ Adem ALTAN

Reports of human rights abuses have become sadly synonymous with Turkey in recent years. Although the multi-year state of emergency following the 2016 coup attempt finally came to an end in July 2018, concerns about human rights did not end with it.

Locking Turkey’s worries away

Hundreds of thousands of people were detained and imprisoned following the coup attempt, many not for explicit involvement in the putsch but for affiliation or past experience with the movement of Fetullah Gulen, whom Ankara believes was behind the coup. The majority of trials have now ended and those convicted are serving sentences, several of them decades long. Some of those swept up in the coup appear to have questionable cause for detention, including notable human rights philanthropists.

Ironically, some of the soldiers involved in the operation to execute or capture President Recep Tayyip Erdogan escaped and now live in exile in Greece. Historians will likely view the 2016 coup attempt as a watershed moment in Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record. The purge of so-called Gulenists following the coup attempt was wide-reaching and brutal, providing Ankara with a bogeyman to justify its increased repression, including of the press, within the post-9/11 narrative of fighting terrorism. Perhaps most worryingly has been Turkey’s turn to some of the worst aspects of the war on terror, including an extraordinary international campaign. This preceded the heinous killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate, but shows a similar disregard for international human rights standards.

Political placation at home and abroad

This confidence in Turkey’s ability to flout international norms has been bolstered by Erdogan’s awareness of the leverage that he still holds over Europe, announcing in May 2019 that the European Union (EU) needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. The 2016 migrant deal between Brussels and Ankara has largely held, even in the face of frayed relations. However, the deal’s ‘results’ have come at a high price for human rights. Rights groups continue to point to the desperate measures that migrants, both Turkish and foreign, take to reach Europe. In 2018, the Greek authorities recorded 14,000 ‘irregular entries’ by migrants from Turkey, and there are frequent reports of migrants dying making the dangerous river crossing at the land border into Europe. Yet the EU shows no sign of amending or annulling the deal, which keeps the migrant flow from European headlines, even though its own representatives describe Turkey’s 2018 human rights record as ‘seriously backsliding’.

Despite this geopolitical turmoil, Turkey did manage to ease one of its outstanding transnational human rights spats in 2018 with the release of Andrew Brunson, an American missionary detained for two years for his links to Gulenists in Turkey. Although he was widely viewed as a political hostage during the worst US-Turkish relations for a generation, American citizens remain locked up in Turkey. Washington’s efforts to secure its citizens’ release appear only to be important enough for white Christians. Several others, including NASA scientist Serkan Golge, are still detained on spurious charges.

At the national level, a slew of politicians from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) remain in jail on terror charges. Among them are the party’s leader Selahattin Demirtas, whose political activity has been restricted to the occasional letter and video speech, members of parliament and former mayors of the country’s largest Kurdish city, Diyarbakir. Erdogan may be regretting this particular move, however. Weakened by the detentions, the HDP decided not to run in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, a decision that no doubt helped Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition Republican People’s Party candidate, to take the influential seat with a 20,000-vote majority.

His victory was short-lived, however, and the overturning of the result by the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) was widely criticized as the end of Turkish democracy. The fact that the YSK rejected the result while ignoring the contemporaneous vote won by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has raised questions about the ostensibly independent nature of Turkish institutions. The government’s control over official functions, including those like the judiciary that typically defend their independence fiercely, appears near total, with dangerous ramifications for human rights.

Silencing voices of dissent

Ankara’s deeply troubling relationship with the press has shown few signs of improving. Turkey remains the number one jailer of journalists worldwide; 112 were jailed in 2018 alone. These releases have, however, coincided with one journalist being attacked with baseball bats, which itself follows the attempted assassination in 2016 of a high-profile editor critical of the government. More broadly, the vast majority of the press remains dominated by state-controlled or state-aligned interests, ensuring that coverage of the government is overwhelmingly positive, especially during elections when opposition candidates struggle to get the same amount of air time.

Alarmingly, the persecution of academics, still a vocal voice for justice, continues. In May 2019, a university professor was arrested on terror charges for attending a conference in France, having already had his passport rescinded. The same month, historian Fusun Ustel began serving an 11-month sentence for signing a pro-peace declaration in 2016.

The rights of all humans

Any discussion of Turkish human rights must mention the difficulties faced in cementing the rights of women and ethnic and sexual minorities. Femicide, violence against women and honour killings remain a stain on Turkish society and one that has traditionally been met with a lukewarm government response. The suspicious death of 11-year-old Rabia Naz in the country’s north-east in April 2018 renewed calls for justice for the victims of child abuse and violence against women and girls. Few expect much to change in the short term. Women’s rights will likely remain a bellwether for how seriously Turks as a whole take the issue of human rights.

Osman Kavala, a prominent civil society leader and government critic, was arrested in November 2017 for his alleged links to the Gulenist movement. Although his cultural foundation continues to operate, the loss of its leader is a serious blow to minority rights in the country, which has a troubled history of infring-ing on the rights and representation of Kurdish and non-Kurdish groups.

Under the Islamist politics of the AKP, few were surprised that the 2018 Gay Pride parade in Istanbul was banned again, although a ban on the sister parade in Ankara was lifted this year. While the bans are ostensibly for security reasons, this marks the fourth consecutive year that marchers have been prevented from proceeding down Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue. Turkey has long had the most open attitude towards LGBT communities in the Middle East (although its record is far from spotless), and the wider region will likely feel less pressure to reform its attitudes if it sees Turkey backtracking.

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