Human Rights Watch: Turkey “increasingly autocratic”

Police draw up their lines at the May Day protests.  Photograph by Burak Kara.  Used with Permission

Police draw up their lines at the May Day protests. Photograph by Burak Kara. Used with Permission

Human Rights Watch issued its annual report today.  The section on Turkey notes some positive steps, including a reform package, efforts at a peace process with Kurds in Turkey, and the hosting of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.  Nonetheless, the overall landscape of Turkish human rights is grim:

In office for three terms since 2002, and enjoying a strong parliamentary majority, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demonstrated a growing intolerance of political opposition, public protest, and critical media.

The most positive components of the report addressed on-going reforms and negotiations with the Kurds.

Positive steps included ending the headscarf ban for women in the civil service; signaling that the 10 percent election threshold that has kept minority parties out of parliament will be lowered; and easing the restriction on mother-tongue education by permitting it in private schools.

Nonetheless, the report states that the AKP government is “more focused on addressing the undemocratic legacy it inherited than abuses that have proliferated under its watch” and that ” efforts to reach a consensus on a new constitution stalled over contested elements such as the definition of citizenship and minority rights provisions.”

The government made important initial steps in a peace process with the country’s Kurdish minority. At the start of 2013, the government announced talks with imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan to end the decades-long armed conflict with the PKK. Bolder steps to address the rights deficit for Turkey’s Kurds could address the root causes of the conflict and help further human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups in Turkey. Significantly, the government and the PKK maintained a ceasefire through 2013 and there were no deaths reported on either side.

The weight of the Turkey section was, however, deeply critical of attacks on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, excessive force by police, and impunity.

Unsurprisingly, the suppression of the Gezi protests was highlighted in the report:

The government’s response to the Taksim Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and anti-government protests in other cities demonstrated its intolerance of the right to peaceful assembly and free expression. The authorities charged hundreds of individuals involved in the protests—mostly in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir—with participating in unauthorized demonstrations, resisting the police, and damaging public property. Several dozen people face additional terrorism charges in connection with the protests. Around 50 protesters remained in pretrial detention at time of writing. A criminal investigation into the organizers of Taksim Solidarity, a platform of 128  nongovernmental organizations supporting the Gezi Park campaign and sit-in was ongoing.

The report also noted the war on critical journalism that accompanied this crackdown:

The mute or biased coverage of the Taksim Gezi protests in much of Turkey’s media highlighted the reluctance of many media companies to report news impartially when it conflicts with government interests. In the course of the year, scores of media workers, among them highly respected mainstream journalists and commentators writing critically of the government in different media, were fired from their jobs.

While being generally positive about legal reforms implemented during this period, Human Rights Watch highlighted the limits of these reforms:

Reforms undertaken in 2013 did not remedy the situation of the thousands of prosecutions of individuals on charges of “membership of an armed organization”… Demonstrating the government’s widespread misuse of terrorism laws… hundreds of Kurdish political activists, elected mayors, parliamentarians, officials of the Peace and Democracy Party, students, and lawyers have been in prison for long periods… during their trials for association with the KCK. The human rights defender Muharrem Erbey has spent four years
in prison on these charges.

Muharrem Erbey

Muharrem Erbey

Others were prosecuted under statutes which otherwise limit free speech, including famed pianist Fazil Say.

The final sections of the Turkey section addressed excessive use of police force, both during the Gezi Protests and elsewhere and the on-going question of impunity.

The Taksim Gezi Park protests saw police repeatedly disperse protesters, most of whom were entirely peaceful, with water cannons, rubber bullets, and teargas, resorting to excessive use of force and beatings of detainees. Police also unlawfully shot teargas canisters directly at protesters, leading to scores of protesters receiving serious head injuries as a direct result.

© Tolga Sezgin/ NarPhotos  Used by permission

© Tolga Sezgin/ NarPhotos Used by permission

On the Turkish bombing of Kurdish civilians in 2011 Human Rights Watch raised concerns about a potential cover-up:

In June 2013, the Diyarbakır prosecutor’s office said it lacked jurisdiction in the case of an attack by the Turkish Air Force in December 2011 that killed 34 Kurdish villagers close to the Iraqi Kurdistan border near Uludere. The prosecutor referred the case to the military prosecutor, but the lack of an effective investigation to date supports concerns about an official cover-up.

It also noted that in the case of assassinated journalist, Hrant Dink, “there has been inadequate investigation of evidence of state collusion in Dink’s murder.”

Howard Eissenstat
Department of History, St. Lawrence University

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