Human rights violations continued in Turkey in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government consolidated its authoritarian rule by passing rushed legislation that contravenes international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual Turkey report.
The human rights watchdog criticized the Turkish government for using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to deepen its autocratic rule by banning demonstrations by opposition parties and government critics. HRW said in a press release on the report that although the government introduced an early parole law to ease prison overcrowding, it deliberately excluded political prisoners convicted under the country’s controversial counterterrorism law.
“The Covid-19 pandemic became a pretext for the Erdoğan government to double down on autocratic rule and stamp out criticism and opposition at the expense of uniting the country during a public health crisis,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international focus on Turkey’s foreign policy should not be allowed to overshadow the assault on democratic safeguards at home, which accelerated during 2020.”
According to the report, the largest targeted group consists of people alleged to have links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, which Turkey deems a terrorist organization and holds responsible for a July 2016 coup attempt. Gülen and the movement deny involvement in the coup or any terrorist activity.
According to a statement from Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu in November, a total of 292,000 people have been detained, while 96,000 others have been jailed due to alleged links to the Gülen movement since the failed coup. The minister said there are 25,655 people in Turkey’s prisons who were jailed on alleged links to the Gülen movement.
The report states that the other groups most targeted by the government are journalists, opposition politicians — particularly members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — and activists.
HRW names philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala, journalist and writer Ahmet Altan, former co-chairs of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ and many other former parliament members, mayors and other officials from that party as some of the most prominent figures whose imprisonment continued in 2020.
“Executive interference in the judiciary and in prosecutorial decisions are entrenched problems, reflected in the authorities’ systematic practice of detaining, prosecuting, and convicting on bogus and overbroad terrorism and other charges, individuals the [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan government regards as critics or political opponents,” the report said.
The report also pointed out that there were rising allegations of torture, ill-treatment, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment in police and custody and in prison. It added that these allegations had not been effectively investigated by prosecutors and that Turkey had an entrenched culture of impunity when it came to abuses by members of the security forces and public officials implicated.
During the year, there were many reports of abuse in prisons and complaints that inmates were subjected to unnecessary and humiliating strip-searches. The European Court of Human Rights has found that strip-searches constitute degrading treatment when not justified by compelling security reasons and/or due to the way they were conducted. But the practice has been frequently used by Turkish security forces against people suspected or convicted of political crimes.
Torturers were protected by a government decree issued by President Erdoğan that provided blanket immunity for officials who were involved in coup investigations. Decree-law No. 667, issued by the government on July 23, 2016, granted sweeping protection for law enforcement officers in order to prevent victims from pressing complaints of torture, ill treatment or abuse against officials. There were multiple cases in which Turkish prosecutors refused to investigate torture allegations, citing this decree-law.
Article 9 of the decree states that “legal, administrative, financial and criminal liabilities shall not arise in respect of the persons who have adopted decisions and fulfill their duties within the scope of this decree-law.” The decree was criticized by human rights organizations for being a clear breach of articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party, yet it was never annulled. In fact, the Turkish parliament passed the decree into law on October 18, 2016.