US State Department maps out Turkey’s human rights abuses

The US State Department on March 11 issued its 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on Turkey in which it took stock of human rights violations in the country.

“Significant human rights issues included: reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons, including former opposition members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, foreign citizens, and employees of the U.S. Mission, for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; the existence of political prisoners, including elected officials and academics; significant problems with judicial independence; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and unjustified arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking and the existence of criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; some cases of refoulement of refugees; and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and members of other minorities,” the report says in summary.

According to the report, “Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 45,000 police and military personnel and more than 130,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding the coup attempt, and designated by the government as the leader of the ‘Fethullah Terrorist Organization’ (‘FETO’).”

The report maps out Turkey’s human rights shortcomings under 7 sections: 1. Respect for the integrity of the person, 2. Respect for civil liberties, 3. Freedom to participate in the political process, 4. Corruption and lack of transparency in government, 5. Governmental attitude regarding international and nongovernmental investigation of alleged abuses of human rights, 6. Discrimination, societal abuses, and trafficking in persons, 7. Worker rights, thereby providing legal framework as well as government abuses under each section.

Under the “Arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful or politically motivated killings” subsection of Section 1 pertaining to Operation Peace Spring in Syria’s northern border region launched by the Turkish armed forces, the report claims that “Turkish forces and Turkish-supported armed groups caused civilian casualties, including attacks on civilian infrastructure, attacks on residential areas, and some instances of civilian targeting, as well as some extrajudicial killings, and looting and property seizures in areas newly under Turkish control.”

Citing The Washington Post and various human rights groups the report further alleges that “Turkey-supported armed group Ahrar alSharqiya ambushed the October 12 convoy of Kurdish politician and secretary general of the Future Syria political party, Hevrin Khalaf, killing Khalaf and her driver.”

The report also points to suspicious deaths in official custody: “[H]uman rights groups documented several suspicious deaths of detainees in official custody, although reported numbers varied among organizations. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) reported 38 suspicious deaths in prison related to illness, suicide, violence, or other reasons.”

The death of Zaki Hasan is a case in point according to the report: “In April, Zaki Hasan, arrested on charges of spying for the United Arab Emirates and who authorities connected with the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was reported to have committed suicide in Silivri Prison. Family members disputed these claims and alleged an autopsy done by the public prosecutor in Egypt revealed evidence of torture resulting in death.”

A major problem is the immunity from prosecution of security officials provided by the government. “By law National Intelligence Organization (MIT) members are immune from prosecution, and other security officials involved in fighting terror are also granted immunity from prosecution, making it harder for prosecutors to investigate extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses by requiring that they obtain permission from both military and civilian leadership prior to pursuing prosecution.”

Disappearances

Enforced disappearances and politically motivated kidnappings are also addressed by the report: “HDP member of parliament Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu reported 28 individuals disappeared or were the victims of politically motivated kidnapping attempts in the first seven months of the year. In August several opposition political party members noted via social media that four of six individuals disappeared around the same time in February, whom authorities suspected of having links with the Gulen movement, had been found after the Ankara Antiterror Branch Office called their families to inform them that the individuals were in police custody. They included Erkan Irmak (reported missing February 16), Salim Zeybek (reported missing February 21), Ozgur Kaya (reported missing on February 13), and Mikail Ugan (reported missing on February 13). In November Mustafa Yilmaz (reported missing on February 19) and Gokhan Turkmen (reported missing February 7) were ‘found’ in Ankara. Eyewitness reports in February alleged that approximately 40 plainclothes police officers in Ankara abducted several of the men and took them away in an unmarked van. The government declined to provide information on efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish such acts.”

Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Some police officers, prison authorities and military and intelligence units employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, according to the report, which provides further details of torture and other abusive treatment by the government officials. “In late May public reports alleged that as many as 100 persons, including former members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed under the 2016-18 state of emergency decrees due to suspected ties to the Gulen movement, were mistreated or tortured while in police custody. The ABA [Ankara Bar Association] released a report that detailed its interviews with alleged victims. Of the six detainees the ABA interviewed, five reported police authorities tortured them. According to their testimonies, authorities blindfolded them and made them kneel, dragged them across a room, hit them on the head and body with a baton, and threatened that unless they ‘talked,’ batons would be inserted into their rectums. The Turkish National Police denied the claims.”

“[I]ndividuals with alleged affiliation with the PKK or the Gulen movement were more likely to be subjected to harsh treatment,” the report states.

Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The massive purge initiated after July 15, 2016 is also a sore point, according to the report. “[F]ollowing the 2016 coup attempt, authorities continued to detain, arrest, and try hundreds of thousands of individuals for alleged ties to the Gulen movement or the PKK, often with questionable evidentiary standards and without the full due process guaranteed under law […]. On the three-year anniversary of the July 15 coup attempt, the government announced that 540,000 individuals had been detained since the coup attempt on grounds of alleged affiliation or connection with the Gulen movement. The Ministry of Justice reported in September that since July 2016, the government had convicted nearly 30,000 individuals on charges related to the coup attempt or ties to the Gulen movement. It had also opened more than 150,000 secret investigations related to the coup attempt. Approximately 70,000 cases were pending trial. A majority of the individuals were reportedly detained for alleged terror-related crimes, including membership in and propagandizing for the Gulen movement or the PKK. Domestic and international legal and human rights experts questioned the quality of evidence presented by prosecutors in such cases, criticized the judicial process, asserted that the judiciary lacked impartiality, and said defendants were sometimes denied access to the evidence underlying the accusations against them.”

Denial of Fair Public Trial

With respect to the independence and impartiality of the judiciary the report argues that “[t]he executive branch also exerts strong influence over the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), the judicial body that assigns and reassigns judges and prosecutors…]. “The judiciary faced a number of challenges that limited judicial independence, including the suspension, detention, or firing of judicial staff accused of affiliation with the Gulen movement. According to press reports based on Ministry of Justice statistics, as of September more than 4,500 judges and prosecutors faced prosecution and nearly 3,500 had been tried under and following the state of emergency. On April 16, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that imprisoned Turkish Constitutional Court judge Alparslan Altan’s detention following the 2016 coup attempt was unlawful.”

Political prisoners and detainees

Officials misuse antiterror laws to silence dissidents and to take political prisoners, the report alleges. “Authorities used antiterror laws broadly against opposition political party members, human rights activists, media outlets, suspected PKK sympathizers, and alleged Gulen movement members or groups affiliated with the Gulen movement, among others, including to seize assets of companies, charities, or businesses. Human rights groups alleged many detainees had no substantial link to terrorism and were detained to silence critical voices or weaken political opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly the HDP or its partner party, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP).”

Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country

The report pointed to the witch hunt carried out by the government against suspected members of the Gülen movement outside Turkey and the abuse of the INTERPOL system and refusal of passport renewals to that end. “The government engaged in a worldwide effort to apprehend suspected members of the Gulen movement. There were credible reports that the government exerted bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having them take adverse action against specific individuals, at times without due process. For example, in January Ukrainian Security Service agents arrested and extradited two Turkish citizens allegedly linked to the Gulen movement. Although both men had Ukrainian work and residency permits, they were denied the legally mandated five-day appeal period before deportation. The Turkish government later hailed the extraditions ‘as an example of strong security cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine.’

“There were also credible reports that the government attempted to use INTERPOL Red Notices to target specific individuals located outside the country, alleging ties to terrorism connected to the July 2016 coup attempt and erroneously reported suspected Gulen movement supporters’ passports as lost or stolen. Although these individuals often had no clearly identified role in the attempted coup but were associated with the Gulen movement or had spoken in favor of it, the reports to INTERPOL could lead to their detention or prevent them from traveling.

“The Turkish government continued to refuse to renew the passports of some Turkish citizens with temporary residency permits in other countries on political grounds, claiming they were members of ‘Gulenist’ organizations; these individuals were unable to travel outside of these countries.”

Property Restitution

Citing the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund of Turkey, the report estimates that “as of September the government had seized approximately 1,100 businesses worth an estimated 59.4 billion lira ($10 billion) since the 2016 coup attempt.”

Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The report notes that “[m]any citizens asserted that authorities tapped their telephones and accessed their email or social media accounts, perpetuating widespread selfcensorship. The Ministry of Interior disclosed that, between January 1 and April 9, it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users who it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. The HRFT reported that in the first 10 months of the year, the government detained at least 1,700 people and arrested 336 for social media posts.

“Using antiterror legislation, the government targeted family members to exert pressure on wanted suspects. Government measures included cancelling the passports of family members of civil servants suspended or dismissed from state institutions, as well as of those who had fled authorities. In some cases the government cancelled or refused to issue passports for the minor children of individuals outside the country who were wanted for or accused of ties to the Gulen movement.”

Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

According to the report the government “restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year,” and “convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression.” The report further alleges that “[d]uring the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions.

“Estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists ranged from at least 47 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to 136 according to the International Press Institute (IPI). The majority faced charges related to antistate reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.

“An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed more than 200 media companies allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement, mostly in 2016-17, as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt.”

The report highlights the control over the mainstream media by the government. “Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most-watched television stations and most-read national daily newspapers.”

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

Academic freedom was compromised during the state of emergency, according to the report. “Some academics lost their jobs or faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy during the year. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education. According to press reports, as of August, 273 departments for 78 public universities did not have any academic staff.”

Freedom of Movement

Despite a constitution that provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation, the government limited these rights, according the report. “The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns.”

Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The report criticizes the government’s attitude towards political participation and activities of political parties. “During the year restrictive government regulations impacted the ability of many among the opposition to conduct political activities, such as organizing protests or political campaign events and sharing critical messages on social media. The government also suspended democratically elected mayors in multiple cities and municipalities in the southeast and in their place assigned state ‘trustees’ when the former were accused of (but not necessarily convicted of) affiliation with terrorist groups. These tactics were most commonly directed against politicians affiliated with the leftist pro-Kurdish HDP and its partner party, the DBP. The government removed 44 percent of HDP mayors elected in the March municipal elections. Since 2016 the government had removed 62 percent of elected HDP officials. Former HDP cochairs Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag remained in prison.”

Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

Regarding corruption the report reminds that “[d]uring the year the government prosecuted law enforcement officers, judges, and prosecutors who initiated corruption-related investigations or cases against government officials, alleging the defendants did so at the behest of the Gulen movement. Journalists accused of publicizing the corruption allegations also faced criminal charges. In March a court sentenced 15 individuals involved in a 2013 corruption investigation of senior government leaders to life imprisonment. There were no reports that senior government officials faced official investigations for alleged corruption.”

The report goes on to provide detailed shortcomings and government/societal abuses in such areas as domestic violence, child abuse, anti-Semitism, national/racial/ethnic minorities, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as workers’ rights.

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