Turkish government criminalising civil society activism – Independent newspaper

The arrest of Yiğit Aksakoğlu, a 42-year-old consultant and activist known for his part in anti-government protests that swept Turkey in 2013, is aimed at criminalising civil society work and deterring Turks from participating in political gatherings or criticising the government, said individuals quoted by journalist Borzou Daragahi in an article for British newspaper the Independent.

Aksakoğlu was one of 13 scholars and civil society figures detained in dawn raids in November for their involvement in the Gezi Park protests, which ballooned from smal environmental demonstrations to save a park in Istanbul into nationwide protests against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the summer of 2013.

The AKP calls the protest a foreign-backed attempt to topple the government, and while the other detainees have been released, authorities have arrested Aksakoğlu for his part in the alleged conspiracy, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tied to Osman Kavala, a Turkish businessman and philanthropist, and the Hungarian financier George Soros.

“There’s no evidence Mr Soros, a Hungarian-born banker and philanthropist, had anything to do with the Gezi protests,” Daragahi wrote. “But Mr Kavala is an advisory board member of Mr Soros'  Open Society Foundation, which advocates the kind of non-violent civil disobedience tactics used by the Gezi protesters. Mr Soros has become a frequent target of leaders facing discontent across the world.”

Aksakoğlu, meanwhile, has reportedly been prevented from conferring with his legal counsel. The charges against him, according to the indictment, are based on intercepted phone calls, and are based on an article in the Turkish legal code that refers to violent attempts to topple the government – “even though prosecutors acknowledge that he took part only in meetings to discuss non-violent protest.”

The arrests of Aksakoğlu and other civil society figures have drawn criticism from the European Union, which said they “run counter to the Turkish government’s declared commitment to human rights and to fundamental freedom,” as well as journalists and activists working in Turkey.

“People will stay even more clear of gathering and speaking among themselves," wrote Nevsin Mengu, a columnist for the leftist Evrensel newspaper.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey Director for the nongovernmental organisation Human Rights Watch, also spoke of her concern that the arrests are part of an ongoing plan to stifle basic rights and freedoms in Turkey.

“All of this innocuous activity is suddenly under scrutiny and being criminalised. This is just criminalising any sort of legitimate, human rights and civil society work even when it’s explicitly peaceful,” she said.