Amnesty International report shows Turkish judiciary used anti-terrorism law to silence critics in 2020

An annual report by Amnesty International on the state of human rights in the world reveals how the Turkish judiciary applies country’s anti-terrorism laws to punish acts protected under international human rights law, noting that the judicial harassment of individuals continued last year.

“Criminal investigations and prosecutions under anti-terrorism laws and punitive pre-trial detention continued to be used, in the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing, to silence dissent,” the watchdog said.

The report underlined that legal amendments introduced in the context of COVID-19 excluded from early release individuals who had been unjustly convicted under anti-terrorism laws and those held in pre-trial detention.

The Turkish parliament passed an early parole law on April 14 aimed at reducing the inmate population of the country’s overcrowded prisons due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, the legislation excluded political prisoners, including opposition politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders convicted under the country’s controversial counterterrorism laws.

According to Amnesty, torture and other ill-treatment were also reported during 2020, citing the case of Osman Şiban and Servet Turgut, who suffered severe injuries after being detained and allegedly beaten by a large group of soldiers in Van province.

Turkey has experienced a marked resurgence of torture and ill-treatment in custody over the past five years and especially since a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Lack of condemnation from higher officials and a readiness to cover up allegations rather than investigate them have resulted in widespread impunity for security forces.

The report also touched on the latest victims of the Turkish government’s practice of enforced disappearance in 2020. “In February, Gökhan Türkmen, one of seven men accused of links with the Fethullah Gülen movement who went missing in 2019, recounted in court the torture and other ill- treatment he had been subjected to during the 271 days of his enforced disappearance… The whereabouts of Yusuf Bilge Tunç, disappeared in August 2019, remained unknown at the end of the year.”

Tunç disappeared in Ankara on August 6, 2019 in broad daylight, leaving no trace behind. His father, Mustafa, said neither the police nor the prosecutor had cooperated with the family in finding their son.

Nearly 30 people have reportedly been abducted by Turkish intelligence since 2016. Most of the abductions targeted members of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Amnesty International had issued an urgent call for action in February for the investigation of the suspected enforced disappearance of Hüseyin Galip Küçüközyiğit, a former civil servant who has been missing since December 29.

Last year journalists and other media workers remained in pre-trial detention or served custodial sentences, while dozens of human rights defenders faced criminal investigations and prosecutions for their human rights work, according to the report.

The report cited a law that changed the structure of bar associations in July. The new law, protested by thousands of lawyers and opposed by 78 out of 80 bar associations, weakens the associations’ authority and independence, according to Amnesty.

“Despite his acquittal in the Gezi trial and a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling for his release, Osman Kavala remained in prison,” the report said.

The ECtHR on December 10, 2019 found a violation upon reviewing Kavala’s application, calling for his immediate release. The judgment ruled that the evidence on which Kavala was detained for the Gezi protests and a 2016 coup attempt was insufficient and agreed that Kavala’s detention and the charges against him “pursued an ulterior purpose, namely, to silence him as a human rights defender.” Turkey, however, refused to abide by the ruling.

“In April [2020], a senior state official at the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) blamed homosexuality and people in extra-marital relationships for the spread of HIV/AIDS. He urged followers to combat this “evil” in a Friday sermon focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic, a call supported by the President [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan],” the report said.

The report also pointed to the deteriorating situation for the rights of women and girls, citing the death of 266 women as a result of gender-based violence in 2020 and earlier signs of a possible withdrawal from a treaty to combat violence against women, widely known as the Istanbul Convention. These signs became reality in March 2021 when President Erdoğan decided to withdraw the country from the treaty.

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