A new report by Amnesty International says Turkey is using the permanent state of emergency to shrink the opposition and silence criticism in the media.
The report, Weathering the storm: Defending human rights in Turkey’s climate of fear, reveals how few areas of Turkey’s once vibrant independent civil society have been left untouched by the ongoing state of emergency. A nationwide crackdown has resulted in mass arrests and dismissals, the hollowing out of the legal system and the silencing of human rights defenders through threats, harassment and imprisonment.
“Whilst the jailing of journalists and activists may have hit the headlines, the profound impact that Turkey’s crackdown has had on wider society is harder to quantify but it is no less real,” said Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Gauri van Gulik.
“Under the cloak of the state of emergency, Turkish authorities have deliberately and methodically set about dismantling civil society, locking up human rights defenders, shutting down organisations and creating a suffocating climate of fear.”
The state of emergency, declared in July 2016 as a temporary exceptional measure in the wake of the failed coup attempt, was renewed for a seventh time last week. Under its imposition, the rights to freedom of expression to liberty and security and to fair trials have been decimated. In so doing, the last line of defence for any healthy society – namely the work of human rights defenders – has been breached.
Blanket bans on public gatherings in cities across Turkey have curtailed the right to assembly and association. Meanwhile more than 100,000 people have faced criminal investigations and at least 50,000 people have been imprisoned pending trial. More than 107,000 public sector employees have been summarily dismissed.
Many of the country’s most prominent journalists and human rights defenders, including Taner Kılıç, honorary chair of Amnesty International Turkey, have been jailed on baseless “terrorism” charges. But their arrests are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Anti-terrorism laws and trumped-up coup related charges are used to target and silence peaceful, legitimate dissent. Prominent journalists, academics, human rights defenders and other civil society actors are subjected to arbitrary detention, prosecutions and, if found guilty in unfair trials, face long sentences.
In February, journalists Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan were given life sentences without parole for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” merely for doing journalistic work. The same sentence could be imposed on human rights lawyer and columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz for critical comments he made on social media, at speaking events and in his columns. A decision on his case is expected on 11 May.
The crackdown on dissent has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression across the country. As lawyer and human rights defender Eren Keskin, who is facing 140 separate prosecutions, a travel ban and prison sentences pending on appeal, told Amnesty International: “I try to express my views freely but I am also acutely aware of thinking twice before speaking or writing.”
As the Turkish military offensive in Afrin, Northern Syria, began on 20 January 2018, hundreds of people who expressed their opposition to the intervention were targeted. According to the Ministry of the Interior, by 26 February, 845 people had been detained for social media posts, 643 people were subject to judicial proceedings and 1,719 social media accounts were under investigation in connection with Afrin.
One human rights activist, Ali Erol, was held in police custody for five days after tweeting an image of an olive tree alongside anti-war hashtags. He is facing a criminal investigation for “propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “inciting the people to hatred and enmity”.
In March, more than 20 students were taken into police custody for participating in a campus based anti-war protest. Ten were subsequently remanded in prison pending trial.
More than 1,300 NGOs have been permanently closed down under the state of emergency for unspecified links to “terrorist” organizations. They include organizations that once carried out vital work supporting groups such as survivors of sexual and other gender-based violence, displaced people and children.