Turkish gov’t using pandemic to double down on autocratic rule - HRW report

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government has used the corona virus pandemic to intensify autocratic rule through silencing critics and passing new laws that seek to limit dissent, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021 published on Wednesday.

Under thepretext of the pandemic, Turkish authorities in 2020 moved to ban opposition and government critics demonstrations while quickly passing new laws that look to tighten Ankara’s grip over social media, the annual report, which looks at human rights practices in over 100 countries, said.

The report also pointed to the government’s move to silence the country’s bar associations while passing a new law aimed at restricting civil society organisations as other examples of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “assault on democratic safeguards.’’

Earlier this month, Turkish police arrested dozens of protesters who gathered against an Erdoğan-appointed rector to Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University in the latest government crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile, in July, thecountry passed a new social media law,requiring platforms with over one million daily users to open offices in Turkey while imposing stiff penalties for non-compliance in a move that critics say is power grab over freedom of expression by Ankara.

The same month, Turkish lawmakers passed a law that would overhaul attorney organizations. The vast majority of bar associations - 78 out of the total of 80 - stood against the bill, citing a government attempt to fracture the profession and silence attorneys critical of the AKP over its dismal human rights record.

“Terrorism charges continue to be widely misused to restrict the rights to free expression and association in the fourth year after the coup attempt,’’ the report said, pointing to an April law, which opened to doors for the release of one third of the country’s prison population.

The law “excluded remand prisoners and all prisoners detained or convicted of terrorism offenses,’’ it said.

The report highlighted the cases of a number of Turkey’s high-profile inmates accused of terror links, including Turkish businessman Osman Kavala, Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş and writer and journalist Ahmet Altan.

The ongoing arrest of such figures is indicative of the “executive interference in the judiciary and in prosecutorial decisions,’’ it said, pointing to  “authorities’ systematic practice of detaining, prosecuting, and convicting on bogus and overbroad terrorism and other charges, individuals the Erdoğan government regards as critics or political opponents.’’

The report also touched on a rise in allegations of torture, ill treatment, and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment in prison and police and military custody over the past four years.

“Prosecutors do not conduct meaningful investigations into such allegations and there is a pervasive culture of impunity for members of the security forces and public officials implicated,’’ it said.

The report arrives amid claims of increasing strip-searching of women detainees in Turkey’ prisons. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has denied the allegations, accusing the opposition lawmaker who brought the claim to Turkish Parliament, Ömer Gergerlioğlu, of being a “terrorist.”