Students detained and suspended over university protests; Women’s rights protests met with repressions
Repeated calls to release Osman Kavala
In December, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers began the formal process of infringement against Turkey after in late November 2021 the Istanbul 13th high criminal court extended the imprisonment of philanthropist, activist, and founding member of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey Osman Kavala. Kavala has been detained for four years without conviction and is accused of funding Gezi Park anti-government protests in 2013 and attempting a coup in 2016. The decision of Istanbul’s court was strongly condemned by, among the others, Amnesty International. Previously, in October 2022, ambassadors of several countries signed a joint statement calling for the release of Kavala and for this reason was summoned by the Turkish foreign ministry. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had also declared them “persona non grata”, but after a few days, he stepped back since a new statement was issued that he deemed more acceptable.
Related to the 2016 coup, in its ruling in November 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) condemned Turkey for unlawfully arresting more than 400 judges and prosecutors after the failed 2016 coup for alleged linkages to the Gülen movement.
A new law on associations a concern
In October 2021, the Regulation Amending the Regulation on Associations was published in the Official Gazette. According to the analysis of the Regulation, with the new amendments, the procedures and principles for carrying out general assemblies and board meetings of associations electronically were partially determined but confusion remains. Associations now have 45 days instead of 30 to notify the local authority of the changes that occur in the place of residence, in the association's statute, in the association's membership, and the general assembly. Associations are now obliged to notify the local authority of aid sent by foreign associations and foundations to their branches and representative offices in Turkey. Moreover, they should notify the result of aid within 90 days after the aid is provided and attach some documents as proof. When it comes to multiple aids, associations will only need to provide a one-time notification. Audits of associations should be carried out every year according to the "risk assessment", but no further details were given on the meaning of this. It is also unclear in which “mandatory situations” auditors will not require a specific certificate to conduct their work.
Reports paint a concerning picture
According to the European Commission 2021 Report on Turkey, the serious backsliding of the environment for civil society continued, as they faced continuous pressure with increasingly limited space to operate freely. The means to limit the activities of CSOs included “recurrent bans, disproportionate interventions and excessive use of force in peaceful demonstrations, investigations, administrative fines and prosecutions against demonstrators on charges of terrorism-related activities”. In particular, it is argued in the report that the new law on preventing the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction might further restrict the activities of human rights defenders and civil society. Nevertheless, organisations remain active and continue to make their voices heard.
Turkey ranked 117th out of 139 countries in the Rule of Law Index published by the World Justice Project in October 2021, scoring poorly on effective guarantees of freedom of assembly association (0.29/1.0) and effective guarantees of freedom of opinion and expression (0.24/1.0), with an overall 133rd position in the fundamental rights section.
According to the Global State of Democracy 2021 report, published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in November 2021, Turkey has seen the world’s highest decrease in democratic rule between 2010 and 2020. The report argues Turkey has a “hybrid regime”, which means it has insufficient space for civil society and media. One of the most affected groups by this overall backsliding is LGBTIQ+ persons.
In November 2021, protests were held in several cities, calling for the resignation of the government, following a rise in exchange rates and increasing economic hardship. The Istanbul branch of the Progressive Lawyers Association reported that police severely intervened against protesters and arrested 55 of them. At least a dozen people were also arrested in the city of Mersin. A few days later, police intervened against members of the “We cannot make a living” group in Ankara while they were protesting for the same reasons, using tear gas on them and detaining some of them. Police also targeted journalists who were trying to film the protest. JinNews Ankara correspondent Öznur Değe was detained with handcuffs and her phone and camera were seized.
İSTANBUL | Kadıköy'de bir kadın eylemciye onlarca polisin saldırıp gözaltına altığı görüntüler!— Özgür Gelecek (@ozgur__gelecek) November 24, 2021
Polis, Kadıköy'ün her sokağında işkenceyle gözaltı yapıyor#BATTIK #hükümetistifa #AKPistifa pic.twitter.com/BpViqhx2JI
Separately, in October 2022, several NGOs from the Van province protested after holding a conference against a five years long demonstration ban that came into effect after the 2016 failed coup.
Women’s march met with violence
In November 2021, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women marched in several cities to protest the government’s decision to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention to eliminate violence against women (the Istanbul Convention), calling for its resignation. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters to disperse them. Several protesters were injured.
Bir kadının başından yaralandığı bu eylemi takip ederken polisin attığı plastik mermi kafamın yanında, yaslandığım ağacın incecik gövdesinde patladı. Yanımda 3 gazeteci daha vardı ve herhangi birimizin kafadan vurulmaması tamamen tesadüf. İnsanlar açık şekilde hedef alındı. https://t.co/DPMuY0dC0G— İzel Sezer (@izelsezer) November 25, 2021
University protests continue
In October 2021, 45 students of Boğaziçi University were detained for attempting to set up a “resistance tent” in front of the Rector’s office after it had been already taken down once by University security. The students were released later that night and some the next day. Following this, a statement was released by the academics of the University condemning the detentions and demanding the resignation of the appointed rectorate, whose legitimacy is considered controversial and a threat to academic freedom The letter stated:
“University must be an environment where our students must feel secure without any conditions and can express their opinions freely. The blockading of such an environment by private security, undercover police officers, and riot police is unacceptable. These interventions aimed at decreasing the quality of education and undermining the grounds for commonsense causes a public loss that affects the entire society."
Later in the month, the appointed Rector Naci İnci obtained a restraining order against 14 of his students, 12 of whom were then sentenced to month-long restrictions by a court, while the other two were sent to prison due to other complaints. Law 6284, designed to protect women from domestic violence, was invoked for such restrictions. After this decision, women in Instanbul protested against the Rector’s misuse of a law that is meant to protect domestic violence survivors but has often failed to be enforced. They held banners “Enforce the Law on 6284 for Şebnems (a woman recently killed by a man in Turkey), not for Nacis."
On 6th November 2021, students who had protested at the beginning of October 2021 were suspended and will face disciplinary action.
“6284 Naciler için değil Şebnemler için uygulansın” diye bugün Kadıköy’deydik.— Kadın Meclisleri (@kadinmeclisleri) November 1, 2021
Mücadeleye devam!@7tepewoman @bumudahil @ilericikadinlar @itukadin @iudayanismasi @kadinkomiteleri @kkadindayanisma @KirmiziGazete @skadinhareketi @yildizdayanisma pic.twitter.com/OLCsZbgtw8
According to Turkey’s Civic Space under Siege report published by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TIHV) on 20th November 2021, 20,071 people were detained, 662 people were arrested, 999 people were sentenced to imprisonment, 4,450 people were exposed to physical violence by police, 90 people were injured by police fire, 19 people were killed either by direct police fire or as a result of police violence, 1,022 people were injured in bombing attacks, and 141 people were killed in bombing attacks following the violations on freedom of peaceful assembly.
In October 2021, the ECtHR ruled in the case Vedat Şorli vs Turkey, finding that the freedom of expression of the applicant was violated after he was sentenced to prison for insulting President Erdogan. Moreover, the Court argued that the domestic law used to condemn Şorli needs to be changed in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Reports show decline in FOE
- According to the European Commission 2021 report on Turkey, in terms of freedom of expression serious overall backsliding continued, with wide-scale restrictions, criminal cases, and convictions against journalists.
- According to Turkey’s Civic Space under Siege report, between 2015 and 2019, 6,479 persons were detained, 2,801 people were arrested, 727 people were sentenced to a total of 27,448 months in prison, 184 media outlets were closed, 137 persons were injured, and five journalists were killed following attacks on freedom expression.
- A report published by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) in October 2021 titled ‘Turkey’s Transnational Repression: Abduction, Rendition and Forcible Return of Erdoğan Critics’ highlighted how the Turkish government has used extrajudicial and illegal methods to forcibly repatriate its citizens abroad.
- According to an IPS Communication Foundation report, pro-government media groups own the overwhelming majority of newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, and news websites that have the largest audience in Turkey.
- A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists 2021 Prison Census which looks at journalists behind bars, ranks Turkey in sixth position after the government released several journalists, however, there has been little improvement in press freedom.
- In Human Rights Watch World Report 2022, it emerged that online content of independent media is regularly removed when critical or offensive to members of the government.
Free speech violations
- The government launched an investigation against the Nobel-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for allegedly insulting the Turkish flag and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, in one of his novels. It is not the first time that such actions are taken against him. The investigation was initially dropped against the author due to lack of evidence but was later reopened after an appeal was lodged.
- Legal action was taken against 30 people who commented on the health of President Erdoğan under a hashtag on Twitter, which speculated that he had died.
- Legal action was lodged against 271 people who commented on Twitter over the currency crisis.
Press freedom violations
- Syrian journalist Majed Shamaa, a reporter for Dubai-based broadcaster Orient TV, was detained at his home in Istanbul and sent to a deportation center in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, where he was allegedly forced to sign deportation papers. He was charged for inciting hatred and insulting Turkish people after producing a satirical video as part of a news program Street Poll, in which he interviewed Syrians living in Istanbul about living conditions in the city and the so-called “banana wars”. Related to this case, in November 2021, the immigration authority decided to deport 45 Syrian refugees after detaining them for sharing videos on social media, mainly on Tik Tok, showing them eating bananas as a way of condemning racism and discrimination they face in Turkey. Several press organisations openly addressed the Turkish government asking for his immediate release.
“We point out that expelling a Syrian citizen from Turkey would violate the principle of non-refoulment. Under this principle of international law, no refugee may be sent back to a country where their life would be in danger,”- said Erol Önderoğlu, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative in Turkey.
- Several journalists, including women journalists were subjected to police violence while trying to cover a protest against Ankara’s Mayor over his decision to give the ownership of Kurtulus Park to a private University.
#Turkey: Police barred journalists, including three women, from filming protests against #Ankara Mayor @mansuryavas_en’s decision to handover ownership of #KurtuluşPark to a private university. Reporters were physically restrained despite showing press cards.— #WomenInJournalism (@CFWIJ) November 18, 2021
Video: @demet_aran pic.twitter.com/LpQOK9EfiC
- On 29th October 2021, during a Republic Day ceremony held in Ankara photojournalists working for Cumhuriyet, Fox TV, and Anka News Agency were blocked from covering the event.
- During the women's march for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (see above), Artı TV journalist Bilal Meyveci was beaten by the police and prevented from covering the protest.
- Member of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Hasan Yazar physically attacked journalist Özcan Saraç on a street in Ereğli after he had reported on corruption allegations linked to Mayor Hüseyin Oprukçu. Yazar continued to threaten the journalist after the incident.
- Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), imposed a fine on broadcaster Halk TV because it “insulted” the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA), a pro-government foundation that is currently at the center of nepotism allegations.
Civic Space Developments