A new report from Freedom House looks at the grim reality of political imprisonment and the concept of “civil death” in Turkey, highlighting the country’s shift towards authoritarianism, Turkish Minute reported.
The report, titled “Visible and Invisible Bars: Political imprisonment, civil death, and the consequences of democratic erosion,” underscores the systematic use of political imprisonment as a tool by autocrats to punish and silence their opponents and critics in times of democratic decline.
The report focuses on recent political developments and their impact on human rights in various countries. It covers the period of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s rule since 2007, especially after 2018; the presidency of Tanzania’s John Magufuli (2015–2021); Thailand after the 2014 military coup and the 2020–21 protests; Tunisia after the suspension of parliament in 2021; Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, especially since the 2013 Gezi Park protests; and the presidencies of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, mainly after 2014. The analysis excludes certain regions such as Zanzibar in Tanzania and southern Thailand due to their particular conditions.
The report’s findings are based on 42 interviews conducted by Freedom House from June to August 2023 with experts, including civil society actors, human rights defenders, journalists and academics.
According to the report, political repression in Turkey has been particularly strong since the Gezi Park protests, which began over an urban development plan in central İstanbul and spread to other cities in Turkey in the summer of 2013.
The subsequent Gezi trials, which culminated in the conviction of eight activists for a coup in 2022, are an example of the state’s harsh response to dissent, the report said.
The report also describes how, following a failed coup in 2016, President Erdoğan implemented constitutional reforms that further centralized power and allowed for widespread detention of those perceived as a threat, including journalists, opposition figures and academics.
Freedom House in its report examines “civil death” as a phenomenon that goes beyond physical imprisonment to encompass a range of tactics used to deprive opposition figures of their participation in society. In Turkey, this has manifested itself in travel restrictions, physical surveillance, blacklisting and the confiscation of assets.
For example, after the failed coup, the government confiscated over 100,000 passports and used systematic surveillance to intimidate opponents of the government. The report says the police raids have become such a routine for some dissidents that they organize their daily lives around them, for example by doing their housework before the police come knocking, which is usually Friday morning.
The report also addresses the plight of Academics for Peace, who were dismissed and barred from working in the public sector after campaigning for peace with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The mass dismissal of more than 100,000 civil servants after the failed coup who were accused of affiliation with the faith-based Gülen movement is also discussed in the report.
President Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.
Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following an abortive putsch in 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
In addition to the thousands who were jailed, scores of other Gülen movement followers had to flee Turkey to avoid the government crackdown.
According to the report, the mass dismissals following the failed coup illustrate the government’s use of blacklisting as a means of controlling dissent.
A critical aspect of the report is the emphasis on the role of a compliant judiciary that enables both political imprisonment and civil death. In Turkey, the independence of the judiciary has been significantly compromised, particularly after the failed coup and constitutional referendum in 2017, which allowed Erdoğan greater control over the appointment of judges.
Immediately after the failed military coup in 2016, Ankara expelled more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors for alleged links to the Gülen movement.
Many believe that the mass disbarment of members of the judiciary has had a chilling effect on the entire judicial system, intimidating the remaining judges and prosecutors into obeying the government and launching politically motivated investigations against critics.
The politicization of the judiciary has reached such an extent that Turkish courts feel free to disregard the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the Turkish Constitutional Court.
The report mentions the rulings such as the ECtHR’s orders to release philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, which Turkish courts did not comply with, in blatant disregard for international legal standards.
The example of Safiye Alagaş, a Kurdish journalist who was arrested in June 2022 on charges of disseminating terrorist propaganda, is listed among the emblematic cases of political imprisonment in the report. Alagaş’s case, characterized by unsanitary detention conditions and a ban on certain reading materials, reflects the general trend of repression of journalism by the Turkish government, especially in relation to Kurdish issues.
The Freedom House report stresses the urgent need for democratic governments, donors and civil society organizations to actively address political imprisonment and “civil death.”
The report advocates the unconditional release of political prisoners, tailored advocacy strategies that take into account individual needs and partnerships with civil society to effectively identify and support political prisoners. It emphasizes the importance of coordinated international efforts, including the involvement of embassy staff in monitoring trials and prison conditions.
Financial and legal support for prisoners and their families, improving prison conditions and post-release assistance to overcome social stigma and obstacles are also crucial, according to the Freedom House report, to combat the systemic conditions that enable political repression and to support advocates for democratic change.