Highlighting the continued backslide regarding the rule of law in Turkey, Amnesty International’s (AI) 2021 country report pointed to baseless prosecutions of human rights defenders, deterioration of women’s and migrants’ rights, silencing of political dissent, and allegations of torture.
The report begins with state overreach in the case of 12 executives in the Ankara Bar Association being investigated for their objection to Turkey’s religious authority Diyanet. Several lawyers from the Istanbul and Izmir bar associations are facing similar investigations for the crime of ‘insulting religious values’.
The report also draws attention to the ‘Kobane Case’, which constitutes the basis of another case for the dissolution of the HDP.
An Ankara court in January 2021 brought a total of 29 charges against 108 prominent members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including incitement to violence and first-degree murder related to the 2014 mass demonstrations held in solidarity with the north Syrian city of Kobane that was under the siege of the Islamic State (ISIS) at the time.
AI also cites HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu being stripped of his parliamentary immunity over a tweet posted in 2016. Gergerlioğlu spent several months under arrest before the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that his rights to liberty and political participation were violated.
The report continued with the Court of Cassation finalising a prison sentence for jailed former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, where the popular politician and human rights lawyer was accused of terrorist propaganda.
Another case cited in the report related to Kurds is the prison sentence issued to Zana Aksu, former chair of the Human Rights Association’s (İHD) Siirt (Sêrt) branch. Aksu was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The rights advocate is a conscientious objector and refuses to do military service. He was also previously convicted of the same charge in 2018.
‘Gezi Park Case’
The AI report also included details on the trial of civil society figures regarding their role in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, named so after the urban park they started in. A construction project to replace one of the last green spaces near Istanbul’s Taksim Square sparked a small environmentalist demonstration, which quickly snowballed into massive anti-government and anti-repression protests where several million people eventually took to the streets over several weeks.
Sixteen activists and human rights defenders continue to face trial for allegedly organising the ‘attempt to overthrow the government’, while businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala stands accused of funding the protests and engaging in espionage.
Kurdish human rights lawyer Eren Keskin was another example cited in the report for the prison sentence she was issued over charges of membership in a terrorist organisation. Keskin was charged for her participation in a solidarity campaign for the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem.
Solidarity with Özgür Gündem was the reason for the prosecution of two more prominent figures in Turkey’s civil society: Dr Şebnem Korur Fincancı, chairwoman of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), and Erol Önderoğlu, Turkey representative for the Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Human Rights Association (İHD) chairman Öztürk Türkdoğan’s brief detention in March last year was also included in the report’s human rights defenders section.
AI cited in the report that İHD Diyarbakır (Amed) branch’s former chairman Raci Bilici was sentenced to six years and three months in prison on charges of membership in a terrorist organisation.
Withdrawal from Istanbul Convention
In 2021, Turkey withdrew from the CoE’s Istanbul Convention on combating and preventing violence against women and domestic violence, depriving women and girls of a vital instrument for protection from all forms of violence without discrimination, said AI in the report.
The withdrawal also affected Turkey’s LGBT community, who have faced increased attacks from government officials, including Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu calling them ‘deviants and perverts’.
An alleged ‘legitimisation’ of homosexuality was cited among the reasons for the government’s desire to leave the Istanbul Convention.
The Istanbul Pride March was banned for the sixth consecutive year, and at least 47 people were detained, AI said. Meanwhile, as a positive development, 18 students in Ankara were acquitted after facing trial for holding a pride march on their campus.
Kurdish lawyer Nurcan Kaya was convicted of terrorist propaganda charges over her support for Kobane, and Kurdish writer Meral Şimşek over her writing.
The report also cited Turkish journalists Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak as examples of Turkey’s violations of freedom of expression.
At least 41 students faced prosecution over protests in Boğaziçi University after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed an outsider as a rector to the prestigious institution in violation of the university’s traditions.
Forty-six people involved with the Saturday Mothers protests, which began in 1996 to protest enforced disappearances in police custody, are facing charges for unlawful gathering due to their 700th weekly vigil held in August 2018.
Seventeen women face charges for allegedly insulting Erdoğan during a feminist march last year, while northern Rize province residents face police brutality for protesting against a prospective quarry.
Allegations of torture
Several prisoners in Diyarbakır reported torture allegations, and several journalists faced trial for reporting on torture allegations by villagers in Van (Wan).
The report also highlighted the death of Garibe Gezer, who alleged sexual assault by prison guards before her apparent suicide, and the disappearances of several men after facing terrorism charges.
Regarding refugees’ rights, the AI report cited attacks against Syrian refugees and the rising anti-immigrant sentiment with the flux of Afghan migrants into Turkey in the summer.
In November, several Syrian refugees were deported for disturbing the peace over short videos they published on social media eating bananas to mock the rising cost of living.