Selective and weak: Critics slam outgoing CoE commissioner’s poor record on Turkey

As Dunja Mijatović’s mandate as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights came to a close on April 1, rights groups criticized the outgoing commissioner for her inadequate and selective work on Turkey, where the human rights crisis continued to deepen during her time in office, the TR724 news website reported on Tuesday.

Mijatović was accused by human rights advocates and experts of being selective in her Turkey-related statements and publications, excluding, in particular, the rights violations involving the victims of Turkey’s widespread purges after a failed coup in July 2016 and people with alleged links to the Gülen movement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the 2013 corruption investigations, 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 the 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.

Lawyer Ali Yıldız told TR724 that throughout her time in office Mijatović persistently displayed an “irritating timidity” on Turkey’s human rights record, in stark contrast to her outspoken predecessor, Nils Muižnieks.

Mijatović, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, released a total of 17 publications on Turkey, only one of which addressed the rights violations related to the post-coup purges, a report she published early in her tenure in 2019.

Former diplomat Hakan Kaplankaya said Mijatović failed to fulfill the duties of her position. He said the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was often slow in concluding cases from Turkey and that Mijatović as the commissioner should have filled the time gap by contacting Turkish officials and releasing statements to urge them to respect human rights.

Kaplankaya pointed to a 2016 statement by Muižnieks as a significant and timely response. According to him, his successor failed to react to the widespread rights abuses that intensified during her time in office.

Mijatović’s indifference to Turkey’s human rights crisis was so pervasive that she even failed to address a recent landmark ECtHR judgment in which the Strasbourg court faulted Turkey over the conviction on terrorism charges of a teacher due to his alleged Gülen links.

In the case known as the Yalçınkaya ruling, the ECtHR described the Turkish courts’ use of a mobile messaging application as evidence of terrorism as unlawful, calling on the authorities to come up with a remedy for the problem which it said was systemic.

Known as ByLock, the mobile application was at the center of the trials of thousands of people whose cases are pending before domestic courts or the ECtHR.

Kaplankaya said the Yalçınkaya ruling will go down in history as one of the most significant judgments in the history of the European human rights court.

Turkish authorities have refused to interpret the Yalçınkaya ruling as a precedent and continue to detain and arrest people over ByLock use.

Yet, Mijatović, who submitted third-party opinions in ECtHR cases concerning the imprisonment of businessman Osman Kavala and the censorship of Wikipedia, took no action on the Yalçınkaya case, even after the ECtHR had rendered its decision.

“This is a judgment that could potentially impact 100,000 trials as underlined by the ECtHR,” Yıldız said. “It is alarming that no reference was made to it in the commissioner’s 2023 Activity Report.”

Mijatović also ignored the Yalçınkaya ruling in a 14-page memorandum she released on March 5, days before the end of her tenure. The Brussels-based Arrested Lawyers Initiative criticized the memorandum for failing to take into account a landmark judgment that concerned the freedoms of expression and association.

Mijatović also persistently turned a blind eye to civil society attempts to draw her attention to the human rights situation in Turkey.

Rights groups from across Europe staged two major demonstrations in Strasbourg in 2022 and 2023 to protest the Council of Europe’s ineffectiveness in the face of the Turkish government’s systematic disregard for human rights and the rule of law.

The Peaceful Actions Platform, an umbrella organization for the Europe-based NGOs taking part in the demonstrations, told TR724 that Mijatović did not even bother to respond to the letters submitted to her office during the protests.

Her office also declined to answer TR724’s requests for comment, citing her “busy schedule.”

On April 1, Mijatović was replaced by Michael O’Flaherty of Ireland.

Yıldız said he expects O’Flaherty to reverse Mijatović’s legacy by adopting more courageous and inclusive stances when defending human rights.

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