Claire Sadar
Feb 11 2018

Turkey: An uphill battle for human rights organisations

Freedom House, an independent human rights and democracy monitoring organisation, downgraded Turkey’s rating from “partly free” to “not free” in its annual report last month. For those of us who write about and advocate for human rights in Turkey,* the news was far from shocking. Basic freedoms and political transparency has been declining steadily in Turkey for years now and accelerated after the failed coup in July of 2016. The state of human rights in Turkey reached a critical point in 2017, as the Turkish government began to target journalists, human rights and civil society leaders in an apparent effort to silence those who were still speaking out against human rights violations and advocating for justice.

Because of the high profile nature of these cases, and the drastic implications they have for human rights in Turkey in the long-term, international human rights organisations have put a tremendous amount of energy into Turkey-focused campaigns. Ahval spoke to four different international human rights NGOs, two with a general and two with a more specialised focus. Though they each have specific priorities, the arrest and detention of some of the most prominent journalists and members of Turkish civil society was a focus for all four. The specific cases that these organisations cited as priorities are a snapshot of the current crackdown in Turkey, and the flawed political and legal system that perpetuates it.

A man holds a portrait of jailed investigative journalist Ahmet Sik on July 24, 2017 during a demonstration outside Istanbul's courthouse. AFP / Ozan Kose
A man holds a portrait of jailed investigative journalist Ahmet Sik on July 24, 2017 during a demonstration outside Istanbul's courthouse. AFP / Ozan Kose

Ahmet Şık’s case, specifically mentioned by Amnesty, highlights the arbitrary and contradictory nature of the charges being levied against prominent government opponents. Şık has been a thorn in the side of the current Turkish government for years. He was first imprisoned in 2011 for allegedly participating in a deep state organisation (dubbed Ergenekon) that was accused of plotting to overthrow the government. It is suspected that the real impetus for his arrest was his books detailing the infiltration of the Gülen movement, which was then allied with the government, into the police and military as well as a book investigating political violence carried out by the deep state. When Şık was arrested again in December 2016, he was accused of spreading propaganda for the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and for the Gülen movement, now an enemy of the government.

The irony of imprisoning Şık for supporting the Gülen movement when he has written entire books painting them in a negative light is apparently lost on the Turkish government.

Turkish medical doctors hold a banner with the images of the chairman and other officials of the Union of Turkey's Medical Association, detained after their protest against the "Olive Branch" Turkish operation in the northern Syrian region in Ankara, on February 4, 2018. The banner reads" Release them. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN
Turkish medical doctors hold a banner with the images of Turkey's Medical Association officials, detained after their protest against Turkish operation in northern Syria. Ankara, Feb. 4, 2018. The banner reads" Release them. AFP / ADEM ALTAN

Physicians for Human Rights has prioritised the case of the 11 leaders of the Turkish Medical Association who were detained after they issued a statement criticising the ongoing Turkish military incursion into northern Syria. Since the Turkish military entered into the province of Afrin in January, nearly 600 people have been detained for criticising or opposing the operation either in protests or on social media. Criticising the Turkish government or the president for any reason has increasingly become grounds for arrest.

Journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan were part of the mass arrests of members of Turkey’s media in the wake of the coup attempt, accused of being the “media wing” of the Gülen movement.
Journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan were part of the mass arrests of members of Turkey’s media in the wake of the coup attempt, accused of being the “media wing” of the Gülen movement.

Article 19, an international NGO focusing on freedom of the press and speech has submitted the cases of imprisoned journalists, including Ahmet Şık, and the tied cases of Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay, to the European Court of Human Rights. Altan and Alpay were part of the mass arrests of members of Turkey’s media in the wake of the coup attempt, accused of being the “media wing” of the Gülen movement, which the Turkish government believes bears sole responsibility for the abortive putsch. They had been in prison on pre-trial detention for a year-and-a-half when, on Jan. 11, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that the extended detention violated their rights. However, a lower court rejected the ruling and Altan and Alpay remain in detention. This clear violation of the rule of law shows how Turkey’s judicial and political systems have become nearly indistinguishable, and thus how it is impossible for any citizen labelled as a political opponent to receive a fair trial.

Activists of Amnesty International stage a protest against the detention of the head of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kilic, in front of the Turkish Embassy in Berlin on June 15, 2017. AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL
Activists of Amnesty International stage a protest against the detention of the head of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kilic, in front of the Turkish Embassy in Berlin on June 15, 2017. AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL

The cases of Osman Kavala and Taner Kılıç have been highlighted by a number of human rights NGOs including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty.

Kavala is a prominent businessman turned civil society leader. His cultural organisation, Anadolu Kültür, was founded to create a dialogue between Turks and minority groups, including Kurds and Armenians, through art and cultural exchange. Kavala was arrested in November of last year and stands accused of trying to overthrow the government through instigating the Gezi protests of 2013. Evidence of these accusations has yet to be presented in court.Kılıç’s case in particular incorporates many of the elements discussed above, including arbitrary charges and lack of rule of law. Kılıç was arrest in June 2017 and charged with membership in the Gulen movement. The primary evidence of his alleged involvement with the movement was that his phone connected with the server of an encrypted messaging app, Bylock, which members of the movement used to communicate. However, the prosecution has never presented evidence that Kılıç ever had this app on his phone, and independent forensic investigators have verified that he never downloaded Bylock. Turkey’s courts have recognised that many others who have also been arrested due to alleged Bylock use were falsely charged. However, Kılıç’s case was not among those listed for review. At his most recent hearing on Jan. 31, a judge ordered that Kılıç be released from detention. However, another court ruled for Kılıç’s re-arrest, and he was taken back into detention.

Riot police forces try to disperse protesters demonstrating in support of two hunger-strikers who were taken into custody in May, in the Turkish capital Ankara on June 19, 2017. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN
Riot police forces try to disperse protesters demonstrating in support of two hunger-strikers who were taken into custody in May, in the Turkish capital Ankara on June 19, 2017. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN

2017 was a tough year for human rights organisations working in and on Turkey, and with the continued detention of Altan, Alpay, and Kılıç, despite courts ordering their release, 2018 is already throwing new obstacles in their path. “We will continue to focus on the many innocent people detained by Turkish authorities ... They are not alone,” Daniel Balson, advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International USA told Ahval. “In 2018, we will continue to fight for their freedom.”


* I volunteer as a Turkey country specialist for Amnesty International USA. This piece is my own work and does not necessarily reflect the views of Amnesty International.