Erdoğan vows to strengthen rule of law in human rights 'action plan'

(This story has been updated with social media reactions to Turkish president's speech)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged to strengthen the rule of law and change election laws in a human rights action plan that is likely to fall well short of the expectations of the European Union and NGOs.

Erdoğan did not mention the three-year detention of philanthropist and human rights defender Osman Kavala - the EU has called for his release - or an anticipated measure allowing people on trial for non-violent crimes to remain free during court proceedings. Kavala is in jail after being charged with espionage and seeking to overthrow the government.

Instead, the president pledged to revise political party and election legislation ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023. He did not provide details. He also called on opposition political parties to support a plan for a new constitution, which critics say would be designed to cement his rule.

Erdoğan has tightened his political grip over the country since winning vastly enhanced presidential powers in 2018, raising concerns that Turkey has turned into a modern autocracy. The European Union has frozen talks on chapters of Turkey’s bid to join the bloc, citing its deteriorating human rights record.

The government’s new human rights action plan, published alongside Erdoğan’s speech, said no one can be deprived of their freedom due to criticism and opinion. During the speech, Erdoğan added that the new rules would apply “so long as people are respectful of the personal rights of others”.

Erdoğan’s lawyers have opened thousands of cases against Turks for insulting him, charges that carry a jail sentence.

The president’s address coincided with a decision on Tuesday by the chief prosecutor of a top Turkish court to investigate the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Scores of senior HDP officials have been arrested over the past two years and the government has sacked dozens of mayors who won seats in local elections in 2019.

Erdoğan’s nationalist coalition partner has called for the group’s closure on terrorism charges. “If Turkey is a state of law, the closure of the HDP is an emergency, it is vital,” far-right leader Devlet Bahçeli said.

The Turkish president, speaking to an audience including EU envoys at the presidential palace, pledged to expedite trials in Turkey, which often last many years.

He also said Turkey would form an independent human rights monitoring commission for prisons, lift statutes of limitations for those accused of torture, bring data protection rules in line with EU standards and make it easier for the seriously ill, elderly and disabled to serve jail sentences at home.

He said that the government aimed to ensure that all public and private sector employees, as well as students, would be allowed to take time off during religious holidays. It would also revise regulations for the election and composition of the boards of non-Muslim foundations, he said.

Only hours after Erdogan's reform announcement, Cahit Özkan, a deputy chairman of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), said the HDP should be shut down. 

"Following its political closure,’’ T24 news site cited Özkan as saying, the HDP "will also be closed legally. ‘’

“I expect nothing from the government’s Human Rights Action Plan in a country where saying ‘Dear Demirtaş’ is a crime,” journalist Nurcan Baysal said in a tweet, referring to Selahattin Demirtaş, a former co-leader of the HDP who is serving a jail sentence for alleged terror-related crimes.

“Thank god we see this day: In the framework of President Erdoğan’s ‘Human Rights Action Plan’, that there will be no more police detentions in hotel rooms,” law scholar Yaman Akdeniz said in a series of tweets criticising Erdoğan’s announcement.