Over a year on from the coup: civil society still under siege
A year after the failed coup of July 2016, the decline in Turkey's respect for civic freedoms has only continued. On 17th July 2017, the Turkish Parliament approved another three-month extension of Turkey's state of emergency. The emergency provisions were originally enacted in the aftermath of the failed coup last year. They give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wide-ranging powers to bypass parliament and effectively suspend protection of fundamental civic freedoms. As detailed in this update, the prolonged use of emergency laws has allowed Turkish authorities' to crack down on and almost eliminate independent civil society.
At the time of writing, Turkey remains on the CIVICUS Monitor's Watch List of countries where there is an immediate and developing threat to civic space.
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Turkish authorities' brazen restrictions on journalists, media workers and media outlets exemplify the scale of threats faced by the country's beleaguered civil society. Prosecuted under vague provisions of "spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation", independent, critical outlets and individuals have been persecuted and forced out of operation on an unprecedented scale. According to monitoring conducted by Turkey Purge, since 15th July 2017 187 media outlets have been shut down and 302 journalists arrested.
As covered in Turkey's last update to the CIVICUS Monitor, on 5th July 2017 Turkish police detained 12 human rights activists who were having a meeting in a hotel on Buyukada Island. The activists included Amnesty International's chairperson in Turkey, İdil Eser. On 18th July 2017, ten activists were charged with "aiding an armed terrorist organisation", with Eser and five others being held in pre-trial detention. Nearly three months later, the six imprisoned activists are still in detention and awaiting trial.
The litany of arrests and detentions has continued unabated in Turkey. In particular, the last few months have seen several instances of foreign journalists being detained by Turkish authorities. On 31st August 2017, Turkish security forces detained two German nationals for alleged collusion with terrorist organisations. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Turkish authorities now hold at least 12 German nationals as political prisoners across Turkey, including Deniz Yucel. As tensions mount between Berlin and Ankara, all German citizens in detention have been barred from receiving consular assistance.
Turks detained for using encrypted app 'had human rights breached' https://t.co/Dy4BD7wyuB— Guardian news (@guardiannews) September 11, 2017
In the crackdown after the failed coup in 2016, Turkish authorities traced alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen by monitoring downloads of the smartphone app called "ByLock". In the sweeping clampdown, 75,000 individuals were detained for simply having the app on their phone. ByLock is a messaging application and it was allegedly conceived by supporters of Gülen in the run-up to the coup in order to coordinate efforts to overthrow Erdoğan's government. However, recent analysis of the legality behind these mass detentions has cast doubt over these allegations, claiming that the use of the ByLock app was widespread and not necessarily an indicator of political opinion. The belief that because an individual had the app installed on their phone means they are connected to the Gülenist movement has been widely debunked and condemned by a number of human rights watchdogs. In particular, a report commissioned by opponents of Erdoğan's government asked two British barristers (lawyers) to focus their efforts on the legality of the detentions. In a statement they said:
“The evidence that the [ByLock] app was used exclusively by those who were members or supporters of the Gülen movement [is] utterly unconvincing and unsupported by any evidence...There is a great deal of evidence ... which demonstrates that the app was widely available and used in many different countries, some of which had no links to Turkey”.
Considering that among the tens of thousands arrested include a number of critical journalists and human rights defenders, the use of ByLock to justify detention has been viewed as simply a way to muzzle dissent. The persecution of those in possession of a widely available app is broadly considered an excuse to legitimise the harassment and detention of anyone critical of the Erdoğan regime.
Attempts to curtail expression for vulnerable groups have also been recorded. On 24th July 2017, the Turkish parliament’s constitutional committee passed a bill criminalising any mention of the Armenian Genocide in the government as well as banning the use of the terms “Kurdistan” and “Kurdish regions". The bill was passed ahead of the Iraqi Kurdish region's referendum on independence on 25th September 2017, demonstrating Ankara's stance against the rights of Turkey's Kurdish minority. On 5th October 2017, President Erdoğan noted that Turkey will soon shut its border and airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish region in response to the controversial referendum on independence.
While a variety of protests have taken place in Turkey recently, there are instances when the right to peaceful assembly was restricted. From 2nd August 2017, authorities in Ankara banned all protests for a month, citing security concerns from terrorist organisations. Turkey's extended state of emergency laws enable authorities to legitimately curtail citizens' rights, as well as the suspend other civic freedoms under the guise of promoting national security.
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, LGBTI- related protests are often met with hostility from Turkish security forces. This trend has continued in July when an application to demonstrate from Istanbul's trans community was rejected. The authorities claimed the event was not registered correctly thus it was not authorised. Tensions heightened after organisers failed to recognise the ban, and attempted to assemble in Istanbul's Taksim Square on 2nd July 2017 under the hashtag #GameofTrans. Authorities arrested seven people in the ensuing confrontation over the unauthorised assembly.
Turkish authorities have also used excessive force to prevent protests. On 23rd July 2017, security forces clashed with protesters mobilising in support of two teachers arrested in Turkey's post-coup crackdown. Literature professor Nuriye Gulmen and primary school teacher Semih Ozakca were arrested after going on a hunger strike over losing their jobs two months prior. Over 150,000 public sector workers have been fired in Turkey since the July 2016 failed coup. Turkish security forces used water cannons, batons and pepper spray to quell protests which led to the arrest of at least 61 people. The confrontation is captured in the video below.
A number of other protests took place recently in Turkey, including:
- Citizens protested against Israel's restrictions on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem;
- Turkey’s main opposition leader and his supporters have been "Marching for Justice" for 25 days to protest MPs' arrests. The protest was closely monitored by Turkish security forces, as 15,000 police officers were deployed to oversee the protest;
- Turkish women's groups marched under the slogan “Don’t mess with my outfit” against gender-based violence and against demands to dress more conservatively;
- Turkey‘s main opposition party staged a sit-in against proposed changes to parliamentary procedure that would restrict lawmakers’ ability to challenge the ruling party in the assembly;
- Pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party lawmakers held placards protesting against the state crackdown;
- Workers protested after a hypermarket chain declared fraudulent bankruptcy and dismissed workers without compensation pay; and
- Tens of hundreds of people gathered to mark the coup that is now considered a national holiday.