HRW calls on Turkey to end punishment of women’s rights activists

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday called on Turkey to end a criminal investigation into over a dozen rights activists detained on charges of insulting the president at a rally marking International Women’s Day.

The criminal investigations against the women’s rights activist over “nonviolent slogans, and taking them from their homes in the middle of the night, demonstrates the Turkish authorities’ profound disdain for freedom of assembly and speech, and of course women’s rights,” HRW senior women’s rights researcher Hillary Margolis said.

On March 10, Turkish police detained 13 people who took part in Women's Day rallies in the Taksim district of Istanbul. The arrests took place following a Feminist Night March for chanting anti-government slogans, but the authorities later clarified that the arrests were in response to a series of insults directed at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Insulting the president is a crime according to Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

“It speaks volumes that even on a day to celebrate women and promote equality, Turkish authorities would rather target them for peaceful demonstrations than protect their rights,’’ Margolis said.

Turkish police identified the phrase “Tayyip, run, run, run, women are coming” as criminally offensive, while police questioned the “rhythmic jumps” of activists, HRW said.

The rights organisation alsopointed to a string of reasons for concern for the women’s rights movement in the country, including Turkey's possible withdrawal from the  Istanbul Convention, surging domestic violence cases and femicides, as well as police interference in Women’s Day protests.

“Officials this year also seemed particularly nettled by the participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the International Women’s Day events,’’ HRW said, pointing to police detentions and interventions during peaceful protests by members of the group.

The Turkish government in recent months has increased its anti-LGBT discourse. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu last month labelled LGBT people as deviants after they played a prominent role in protests against Erdoğan’s appointment of a party loyalist as the rector of the country’s leading Boğaziçi University in early January.