New strategies of protest and old tactics of repression

In my “day job,” I am a historian, specializing in Modern Turkey, and so I can say with some confidence that the protests of the past three weeks are unprecedented in Turkish history.  As some observers have noted, these protests are both a mark of Turkey’s stunning successes and of its dismal failures.   Caglar Keyder recently wrote:

Almost all the protesters in Gezi Park… were the beneficiaries of economic growth and greater openness to the world. They now wanted the basic rights that they knew existed elsewhere

In the face of shocking and indiscriminate police violence, Turkish protestors displayed remarkable creativity, from a tango amidst the tear gas to the latest form of protest, simply standing still.

Erdem Gunduz introduces a new style of protest to Turkey after the brutal suppression of the Gezi Park protests. © Adnan Onur Acar / NarPhotos  Used by permission

Erdem Gunduz introduces a new style of protest to Turkey after the brutal suppression of the Gezi Park protests. © Adnan Onur Acar / NarPhotos Used by permission

The response of the Turkish government, in contrast, has been disappointingly true to form.  The abuses we have witnessed this past month are, in fact, merely the continuation of a dismal track record which Amnesty has long worked to address (see here for the 2013 report).

The attacks on right to assembly and freedom of speech that the world has witnessed with horror this past few weeks has, in fact, been going on for years.  The same is true for the promiscuous use of excessive force against peaceful protestors as well as the impunity from prosecution that security forces have enjoyed.

Investigations and prosecutions of public officials for alleged human rights violations remained flawed with little prospect of those responsible being brought to justice. Convicted officials frequently received suspended sentences and remained in post.

Amnesty International Annual Report 2013

This continuity of repression is also seen in the broad crackdown on dissent that is currently underway in Turkey.  Andrew Gardner, Amnesty’s researcher on Turkey, writes in a recent blog:

By that night we were getting reports from the Istanbul Bar Association about large numbers of detentions. People were calling, saying they couldn’t get in touch with their friends, or had seen someone being detained. They estimate that more than 800 people have been detained in Istanbul alone since the protests began – nearly half of them since since Saturday.

Again, mass arrests, facilitated by over-broad use of anti-terrorism statutes and a series of laws which restrict freedom of expression, have been a central component of the Turkish government’s criminalization of dissent for years now.  Thousands have been arrested, often on extremely flimsy evidence.

University student Cihan Kırmızıgül was released from prison in March following 25 months in pre-trial detention. In May, he was convicted of criminal damage and “committing a crime in the name of a terrorist organization”. He was sentenced to 11 years and three months in prison. The conviction was based on his wearing of a traditional scarf that matched those worn by people alleged to have taken part in a demonstration where Molotov cocktails were thrown. One police officer also identified him as having been at the scene, contradicting the statements of other officers. An appeal was pending at the end of the year.

Amnesty International Annual Report 2013

Yet, as the continued protests in Turkey have demonstrated, these repressive measures are simply incapable of stifling Turkish citizens’ desire to enjoy the basic human rights that we are all entitled to.

It is time for the Turkish government to change tack.  This time, the world is watching.

Please consider joining in Amnesty’s global campaign to protect the rights of freedom of expression and assembly and end police violence in Turkey.

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University

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