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Human Rights and Wrongs in Turkey

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Police officers detain demonstrators during clashes in Istanbul, Turkey, 1 March 2016. Photo Omer Kuscu

The mass arrests, societal repression and purge of official institutions in Turkey since the 15 July 2016 attempted coup have focused attention on the thorny question of human rights in Turkey. But while this new spotlight is more than warranted, abuses of human rights should not be thought of as a new phenomenon in a country that struggled for decades with minority rights and abuses by state forces.

For over a century, one of modern Turkey’s oldest human rights abuses has plagued the country’s international standing and public consciousness. The genocide of the Armenian population in 1915 is yet to be accepted as such by the Turkish government, and there is little appetite among Turks to recall this bloody chapter in their history. However, the bloodletting that cemented the ethnic dominance of Turks set a precedent for Anatolia’s relationship with minorities.

The 2002 election of the AKP under President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan saw minority rights improve, with Armenians able to teach their own language in schools, Shiite Alevis granted greater recognition and a warming of relations between Ankara and Turkey’s Kurds. Still, in 2007, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist and human rights advocate, Hrant Dink, was gunned down in an Istanbul street by a Turkish nationalist. Whereas much of the improvement in minority rights was largely credited to Turkey’s longed-for accession to the European Union, in recent years the situation has deteriorated, especially for the Kurds.

A peace deal to end the decades-long conflict between the Kurdish militant PKK group and the government looked possible in 2013. However, a two-year ceasefire came to an end in mid-2015, reigniting violence. September 2015 saw pitched battles between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army in several towns in the southeast. During the course of this violence and the subsequent curfews, the government killed scores of unarmed civilians, according to local lawyers and activists. Waves of detentions followed, with over 2,000 arrested for alleged links to the PKK.

The Turkish press has long been a target for government repression, and this has increased considerably since the summer. The international press freedom watchdog Freedom House ranks Turkey’s press as ‘not free’ and the country is ranked 151st out of 180 countries for freedom of information in 2016.

Yet rather than banning publications – although Ankara has not shied away from closing Kurdish news outlets – the government has adopted a policy of placing media groups under government trusteeship. This has enabled critical journalists to be dismissed, and the changing of editorial lines to more AKP-friendly positions. News groups affiliated with the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, a one-time ally of Erdoğan, were hit particularly hard. Critical voices are now in short supply.

Unfortunately, repression has not been limited to censorship. In 2015, violent crowds twice attacked the offices of the opposition newspaper Hürriyet, both times following hostile rhetoric against the daily by Erdoğan, and three journalists were killed during the year in connection with their work. In May 2015, authorities began a terrorism investigation into another prominent opposition newspaper, Cumhuriyet, for revealing that the state intelligence agency, MİT, had been supplying hardline Islamist groups in Syria with arms. The arrest of the editor, Can Dündar, and a senior journalist followed in November 2015. While talking to journalists outside a trial hearing in 2016, Dündar narrowly avoided an assassination attempt by an ultra-nationalist.

As the world has moved online, so has the Turkish government’s attention; social media has become a key battleground in the fight for freedom of expression. A new trend in 2015 saw several instances of courts ordering pre-trial detention for defendants accused of insulting Erdoğan on social media. In one such case, a man was arrested for comparing the president to Lord of the Rings character Gollum, an offence deemed to violate Article 301 of the Turkish constitution, which permits the punishment of anyone who ‘publicly denigrates state officials, the government of the Republic of Turkey and the judicial institutions of the state’.

In the first six months of 2015, Turkish authorities were responsible for almost three quarters of all requests to Twitter to remove tweets and block accounts. In March 2016, new legislation allowed ministers to request the Communications Directorate to block online content or remove it within four hours, a power regularly used to stifle news of military operations or terror attacks.

Acceptance of the LGBT community remains a difficult issue, despite Istanbul hosting the Middle East’s largest gay pride parade each year. Homophobia is still common and, even if homosexuality is not illegal, institutional discrimination still exists. Gay men are exempt from national service but are forced to provide ‘evidence’ of their sexuality, often in the form of videos or photographs of them engaged in homosexual acts. Employers have the right to demand to see the green card issued to discharged conscripts but gay men are issued with pink exemption cards, facilitating further discrimination.

Key rights, like peaceful assembly, have also been targeted in law and denied in practice. A raft of legislative amendments in March 2015 enabled arbitrary detentions at protests and police were given almost free reign to use even lethal force against demonstrators. In a crackdown on displays of opposition, the 2016 traditional May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square in Istanbul were denied permission to proceed for the fourth year running.

In June 2016, for the second consecutive year in its 12-year history, police unexpectedly banned and broke up Istanbul’s Pride march, blaming a lack of formal notification and the threat of counter-demonstrations. Security forces used tear gas, water cannons and pepper-ball bullets to violently stop marchers and party-goers. Such force is now typical when the authorities clash with demonstrators on Turkey’s streets, and Istanbul’s governor has subsequently denied permission for a criminal investigation into the conduct of the police.

Impunity for police abuses, even accusations of torture levelled at domestic security forces, is widespread. A stunning lack of accountability has been the legacy of the mass Gezi Park protests in 2013, with justice still lacking for the killing of a 14-year-old protestor and the severe assault of Hakan Yaman by Istanbul police officers. Yaman was filmed being beaten, burned and left for dead by police officers. He lost an eye but survived the attack. Two and a half years on, the police officers in the video have not been identified. There has been some accountability for police involvement in the deaths of two other protestors, but with the long-promised independent Police Complaints Commission nowhere to be seen, there is little hope of meaningful oversight.

The Gezi Park protests brought unwelcome international pressure to bear on Turkey and Erdoğan responded fiercely, with trumped-up charges the norm in such cases. Environmental activists have been accused of ‘founding criminal organizations’ and doctors convicted of ‘denigrating a place of worship’ after giving emergency treatment in a mosque to demonstrators injured in the protests.

Home to more than 2 million Syrians and a key transit route for migrants to Europe, Turkey’s human rights challenges inevitably extend to non-Turks. Conditions and rights protections for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants remain uneven at best, including in relation to education and employment, while underage employment in sweatshops has become almost impossible to eradicate.

The authorities closed the Syrian-Turkish border to refugees in March 2015 and there have been several incidences of border guards shooting at and killing fleeing Syrians, drawing international criticism.

In the face of the increasing Islamization of Turkish society under the AKP, many see women’s rights as being steadily eroded. In 2004, public outcry stopped Erdoğan’s government from passing a law criminalizing adultery, and a similar attempt to legalize underage marriage and pardon child abuse was halted by nationwide protest in 2016. Outside the legal sphere, there have been increasingly open and direct challenges, even by government ministers, to women’s control over their bodies and way of life. In a republic that has always advocated gender equality, and enshrined anti-discrimination laws into the 1923 constitution, the sharp fall in women MPs and Erdoğan’s promise of ‘‘Turkish-style’‘ women’s rights bodes ill for the country’s future.

The emergency powers enacted by Erdoğan since the July coup attempt have all but erased protections of human rights. Turkey is paying a heavy price for the instability and uncertainty that the country has endured and still faces, and it seems unable to control the impulse to repress that has marked the most violent periods of the republic’s history.