Jan 28 2019

Turkey more oppressive than ever - rights activist

Turkey's anti-democratic mentality has not changed since its foundation, but it has never been as oppressive as today, said award-winning Turkish human rights lawyer Eren Keskin.

Over the years, Keskin played a vital role in strengthening civil society awareness in Turkey. She became involved with the Human Rights Association (IHD) three years after its 1986 founding and headed its Istanbul branch for years.

She has been arrested and imprisoned numerous times, accused of terrorist ties for defending Kurdish rights, and won several international honors for her activism, including the Aachen Peace Award, the Theodore Haecker Prize, and just last year, the Helsinki Civil Society Award.

“Turkey’s undemocratic mentality has not changed since its foundation,” said Keskin. “There is no change in the mind or understanding of the state. I have been part of the struggle for human rights for nearly 30 years. I have not experienced a period in which freedom of thought and freedom of expression have been contravened this much. Turkey is more oppressive today than ever.”

Keskin said she had been brought before the courts more than 100 times and convicted on numerous occasions.

"I see the struggle for the defence of human rights as respect for those who have died. It is out of respect for them that I am part of the struggle for human rights,” she said. “We experienced a lot of pressure, but our friends were killed. They were killed fighting for human dignity. I am lucky to be alive...I was assaulted twice with firearms, imprisoned and threatened with death, but never gave up.”

Turkish authorities have jailed tens of thousands in a widespread crackdown against government critics of all stripes following a coup attempt in July 2016, not just the Islamist former allies of the ruling party blamed for the failed putsch.

"There are so many imprisoned activists, human rights defenders, politicians in Turkey. It would be a more democratic country if it were ruled by those behind bars," Keskin said.

Besides those convicted in connection with the coup, or jailed in lengthy pre-trial detention, many more have been sacked from their jobs as civil servants, including state employees such as doctors and teachers.

“For all of us it’s a different, painful and unexpected process,” she said.

Keskin became the editor-in-chief of the Kurdish Özgür Gündem newspaper from 2013 to 2016 as part of a solidarity campaign after Turkish authorities arrested its journalists. She was prosecuted for a number of articles that appeared in the newspaper as, under Turkish law, editors-in-chief can be indicted when the authors cannot be held to account.

Keskin said 143 criminal cases had been brought against her for her time working at Özgür Gündem. "I have already been sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison, a 450,000 lira ($85,000) fine and travel ban," she said.

A court in October lifted the ban on Keskin travelling abroad, but last week she realised she had been given another one when authorities refused to issue her a passport. She had been nominated for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and was planning to attend the award ceremony in Switzerland.

“People ask, ‘How do you live? How do you endure it?’” Keskin said. “For me, the job we do is a way of life and I have never regretted it.”