Yesterday, Amnesty International released its 2020/2021 annual report, The State of the World’s Human Rights. The section on Turkey, reprinted in full below, is a damning assessment of the spiraling state of human rights in Turkey. The EU and the US must make human rights a priority in all their engagements with Turkey, not only because a free, democratic Turkish society is in their best interest, but because it is simply the right thing to do.
The judiciary disregarded fair trial guarantees and due process and continued to apply broadly defined anti-terrorism laws to punish acts protected under international human rights law. Some members of the judiciary and legal profession were subjected to sanctions for the legitimate exercise of their professional duties. The judicial harassment of individuals such as journalists, politicians, activists, social media users and human rights defenders for their real or perceived dissent continued.
Four human rights defenders, including Taner Kılıç, were convicted in the baseless Büyükada trial. Despite his acquittal in the Gezi trial and a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling for his release, Osman Kavala remained in prison. Comments by a senior state official against LGBTI people were endorsed by some government officials, including President Erdoğan. The ruling party threatened to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.
Legal amendments introduced in the context of COVID-19 excluded from early release individuals who had been unjustly convicted under anti-terrorism laws and those held in pre-trial detention. Credible reports of torture and other ill-treatment continued to be made.
In February, Turkey launched a military
operation (Spring Shield) against Syrian
forces after Syrian air strikes killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib, Syria (see Syria entry).
Concurrently, Turkey declared its borders
with the EU open, and encouraged and
facilitated the transportation of thousands of
asylum-seekers and migrants to Greece’s
land borders. Greek forces responded with
violent pushbacks, resulting in at least three
deaths. In April, the government used the
COVID-19 crisis to further crack down on the
opposition, banning several opposition-run
municipal donation campaigns and
launching investigations into pandemic
fundraising efforts by the mayors of Istanbul
In March and again in October, due to the
COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Health
prohibited health workers from resigning. The measure was initially foreseen for a three month period but was later extended until further notice.
In November and December, social media
companies, including Facebook, Twitter and
Instagram, were fined 40 million Turkish liras
(more than €4 million) each for failing to
appoint a legal representative in Turkey as
required by the amended law on social
media. Companies failing to meet legal
obligations will face further sanctions,
including reduced bandwidth, making their
services unavailable in Turkey. In December,
YouTube announced it was setting up a legal
entity in the country.
Judiciary and lawyers
A disciplinary investigation initiated by the
Council of Judges and Prosecutors against
the three judges who on 18 February
acquitted the Gezi trial defendants, including
civil society leader Osman Kavala, was
ongoing at the end of the year. The
investigation followed the President’s public
criticism of the acquittal decision.
In July, Parliament passed a law changing
the structure of bar associations. Thousands
of lawyers protested and 78 out of 80 bar
associations signed a statement opposing the reform. The new law weakens the
associations’ authority and independence.
Criminal investigations targeting lawyers for
representing clients accused of “terrorism
related offences” continued.
In September, police detained 47 lawyers
on suspicion of “membership of a terrorist
organization”, based solely on their work. At
least 15 lawyers were remanded in pre-trial
detention. Also in September, the Court of
Cassation upheld the prison sentences of 14
lawyers from the Progressive Lawyers
Association, prosecuted under terrorism
REPRESSION OF DISSENT
Criminal investigations and prosecutions
under anti-terrorism laws and punitive pretrial detention continued to be used, in the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing, to silence dissent.
Under the guise of combating “fake
news”, “incitement” or “spreading fear and
panic”, the authorities used criminal law to
target those discussing the COVID-19
pandemic online. The Cyber Crimes Unit of
the Interior Ministry alleged that 1,105 social
media users had made “propaganda for a
terrorist organization”, including by “sharing
provocative COVID-19 posts” between 11
March and 21 May; reportedly 510 were
detained for questioning.
In October, the President targeted the
Turkish Medical Association (TTB) and called its new chair “a terrorist” after the TTB
repeatedly criticized the government’s
response to COVID-19.
In April, as COVID-19 spread in the
country, the government amended the law on
the execution of sentences, enabling the
early release of up to 90,000 prisoners.
Specifically excluded were prisoners in pretrial detention and those convicted under
Abusive investigations and prosecutions
targeting former parliamentarians and
members of opposition parties continued. In
June, an Istanbul Appeals Court upheld the
conviction of Canan Kaftancıoğlu, Istanbul
Provincial Chairperson of the opposition
Republican People’s Party (CHP). She was
sentenced to nine years and eight months in
prison for “insulting the President” and
“insulting a public official”, “inciting enmity
and hatred” and “making propaganda for a
terrorist organization”. The sentence referred
to tweets she had shared seven years earlier.
The case was pending before the Court of
Cassation at year’s end.
In October, 20 former and current
members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’
Democracy Party (HDP), including the Mayor
of Kars city, Ayhan Bilgen, were remanded in
pre-trial detention for their alleged role in
violent protests in October 2014. The
accusations were largely based on social
media posts from the official HDP twitter
account at the time. Following the remand in
pre-trial detention of Ayhan Bilgen, the
Ministry of Interior on 2 October appointed
the Kars Governor as trustee to Kars
Municipality. Former co-chairs Selahattin
Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ remained in
pre-trial detention as part of the same
investigation since September 2019. A new
indictment was pending at the first instance
court at the end of the year, days after the
ECtHR’s Grand Chamber called for the
immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaş,
finding that his rights to freedom of
expression, liberty and security, free elections and not to be subjected to the misuse of limitations on rights had been violated.
In December, Parliament passed a new
law ostensibly to prevent the financing of the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, with severe consequences for civil society organizations. The law included allowing the removal of individuals facing prosecution under anti-terrorism laws from boards of NGOs to be replaced with government appointed trustees.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Journalists and other media workers
remained in pre-trial detention or served
custodial sentences. Some prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws were convicted and sentenced to years of imprisonment, their legitimate work presented as evidence of criminal offences.
In March, police detained at least 12
journalists for their reporting of the COVID-19 pandemic, including journalist and human
rights defender Nurcan Baysal, who
was accused of “inciting the public to enmity
and hatred” for her social media posts. Six
journalists were imprisoned for their reporting on the funeral of two alleged intelligence officers from the Turkish National Intelligence
Agency (MIT) killed in Libya. In May, the six
detained and one other journalist were
indicted for “revealing the identities of
intelligence officers”. In September, five of
them received prison sentences for
“publishing intelligence information”.
Journalists Alptekin Dursunoğlu and Rawin
Sterk Yıldız, detained for their social media
posts in March, were released at their first
hearing in March and September
respectively. Their cases continued at the
end of the year.
HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
Dozens of human rights defenders faced
criminal investigations and prosecutions for
their human rights work.
In July, the Büyükada trial of 11 human
rights defenders concluded with the court
convicting Taner Kılıç of “membership of the
Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization (FETÖ)”, sentencing him to six years and
three months’ imprisonment; İdil Eser, Günal
Kurşun and Özlem Dalkıran were sentenced
to “one year and 13 months” for “knowingly
and willingly supporting FETÖ”. The
remaining seven defendants were acquitted.
On 1 December, a regional appeals court
upheld the convictions of the four defenders,
who appealed to the Court of Cassation.
In February, Osman Kavala and eight other
civil society figures were acquitted of all
charges including “attempting to overthrow
the government” and allegedly “directing”
the 2013 Gezi Park protests. However,
Osman Kavala was detained on new charges
just hours after his release. In May, the Grand
Chamber of the ECtHR confirmed its
December 2019 decision calling for his
immediate release, having found his
prolonged pre-trial detention to be unlawful
and serving an “ulterior purpose”. In its
examinations of the case in September and
October and its interim resolution in
December, the Council of Europe’s
Committee of Ministers urged Turkey to
comply with the ECtHR’s ruling.
In October, an Istanbul court accepted a
new indictment against Osman Kavala and
US academic Henri Barkey, charging them
with “attempting to overthrow the
constitutional order” and “espionage”,
despite lack of evidence. In December, the
General Assembly of the Constitutional Court found no violation in relation to his ongoing pre-trial detention. Osman Kavala remained in prison at the end of the year.
In January, the Istanbul prosecutor
requested the conviction of human rights
lawyer Eren Keskin in the main Özgür
Gündem trial, along with others who had
participated in a solidarity campaign. In
February, in an interim ruling, her codefendants Necmiye Alpay and Aslı Erdoğan were acquitted. The prosecution against Eren Keskin and three other defendants continued.
In March, Raci Bilici, former chair of the
Diyarbakır branch of the NGO Human Rights
Association (IHD), was sentenced to six years and three months’ imprisonment for
“membership of a terrorist organization”,
based on his human rights work. An appeal
was pending at the end of the year.
In October, following a 2019 report by the
research group Forensic Architecture, the
trial of three police officers and an alleged
member of the armed Kurdistan Workers
Party (PKK) accused of killing human rights
lawyer Tahir Elçi began almost five years after his death in Diyarbakır. The officers faced charges of “causing death by culpable
RIGHTS OF LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL,
TRANSGENDER AND INTERSEX (LGBTI)
In April, a senior state official at the Religious
Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) blamed
homosexuality and people in extra-marital
relationships for the spread of HIV/AIDS. He
urged followers to combat this “evil” in a
Friday sermon focusing on the COVID-19
pandemic, a call supported by the President.
Bar associations criticizing the statements
faced criminal investigation under Article
216/3 of the Penal Code that criminalizes
“insulting religious values”.
RIGHTS OF WOMEN AND GIRLS
In July, the brutal murder of 27-year-old
student Pınar Gültekin led to country-wide
protests. The trial of two men accused of her
murder continued at the end of the year.
In August, suggestions by some politicians
in the ruling Justice and Development Party
(AKP) to withdraw from the Istanbul
Convention sparked country-wide
demonstrations. Women’s rights
organizations criticized the lack of
implementation of the Convention, including
an adequate response to rising domestic
violence during COVID-19 restrictions. The
Ministry of Interior announced that 266
women had died as a result of gender-based
violence in 2020, though the figures provided
by women’s organizations were much higher.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
In March, for the second year running, the
authorities banned the International Women’s Day march in Istanbul. Police used tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse peaceful protesters who had defied the ban.
The prosecution of six women accused of
“failure to disperse” under Article 32 of the
Law on Meetings and Demonstrations began
in November. The charges related to their
participation in the peaceful December 2019
Las Tesis protest to end femicide.
In June, an Ankara administrative court
ruled that banning the Pride march by
students on campus was unlawful. On 10
December, the trial of 18 students and one
academic of the Middle East Technical
University in Ankara for attending a campusbased Pride march in May 2019 was
postponed to April 2021.
TORTURE AND OTHER ILL-TREATMENT
In September, Osman Şiban and Servet
Turgut suffered severe injuries after being
detained and allegedly beaten by a large
group of soldiers in Van province, according
to Osman Şiban’s testimony. Servet Turgut
died in hospital on 30 September. Statements by the Van Governor’s Office and the Minister of Interior contradicted eye-witnesses’ and Osman Şiban’s statements. A criminal investigation into the allegations of torture opened by the Van Prosecutor was subjected to a secrecy order. In October, four journalists who covered the case were arrested in Van for being “members of a terrorist organization” on the grounds of the news agencies they worked for and of making news on “public incidents in line with PKK/KCK’s [Kurdistan Communities Union] perspective and orders to the detriment of the state”.
In December, a prisoner on pre-trial
detention at Diyarbakır prison, Mehmet
Sıddık Meşe, was denied access to urgent
medical care and to examination by medical
forensic staff after he was allegedly subjected to severe beating by prison guards. The prosecuting authorities had not launched an independent investigation into the allegations by year’s end.
In February, Gökhan Türkmen, one of seven
men accused of links with the Fethullah
Gülen movement who went missing in 2019,
recounted in court the torture and other illtreatment he had been subjected to during
the 271 days of his enforced disappearance.
The court requested a criminal investigation
to be launched into his allegations.
The whereabouts of Yusuf Bilge Tunç,
disappeared in August 2019, remained
unknown at the end of the year.
RIGHTS OF REFUGEES, ASYLUM SEEKERS AND MIGRANTS
Turkey continued to host the largest refugee
population in the world: around 4 million
people, including 3.6 million Syrians. The
2016 EU-Turkey deal, which provides
European financial assistance to support
refugees in Turkey in exchange for its cooperation on migration control and returns, continued to operate.
After announcing the opening of the EU
borders on 27 February, Turkey recklessly
encouraged and facilitated the movement of
asylum-seekers and migrants to the Greek
land border, where violent pushbacks led to
deaths and injuries (see Greece entry). At the
end of March, Turkish authorities removed
people from the border area.
According to an NGO report published in
October, Turkey deported more than 16,000
Syrians to Syria during the year. A group of
Syrians reported in May they were forcibly
returned to Syria and had been pressured
into signing documents stating that they
wanted to return.1 As of September, according to UN numbers, Turkey deported around 6,000 people to Afghanistan, although the situation in the country still did not allow safe and dignified returns.