Over 1,000 arrested: Bleak outlook for Turkish civil society in aftermath of referendum

President Erdoğan declared victory as the 16th April 2017 referendum on constitutional amendments passed by a slim majority. Despite the continued dispute over ballots, the results of the referendum have nonetheless granted the president broader authority and ultimately consolidated his power. Given Erdoğan's authoritarian tendencies and the persistent allegations of electoral fraud, the prospect for improved civic freedoms in Turkey looks increasingly unlikely in the near future. 

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, since the failed coup in July 2016 Erdoğan's government has systematically orchestrated a purge against critical opposition, leaving civil society inoperable, journalists and activists in detention, media banned, and the constant threat of mistreatment, attacks and torture hanging over activists' heads.  

In this context of severe repression, international election observers have drawn attention to the limited space for critical dissent, which has ultimately led to a political environment wherein groups opposed to the constitutional referendum were unable to mobilise effectively. Many have also cast doubt over the integrity of the electoral process and opposition groups have already committed to contest the outcome of the referendum at the European Court of Human Rights. In light Erdoğan's increased powers, recent reports from Turkey show that purges against the opposition continue, with reports of over 1,000 individuals arrested on 26th April 2017.  


Latest reports from the ground in Turkey show that Erdoğan's repression of freedom of association has resumed after securing victory in the constitutional referendum. On 26th April 2017, Turkish security forces made mass arrests in a coordinated offensive in all 81 of Turkey's provinces. Over 1,000 people have been detained for suspected links to U.S. based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is frequently credited with orchestrating the failed coup in July 2016. Gulen, however, has denied this allegation. Those arrested individuals are thought to belong to a network of Imams that directed operatives within the Turkish police force. While details of the arrests are still emerging, the use of mass detentions on a national level indicate a worsening environment for freedom of association in Turkey. Serious concerns also remain over whether or not those held in custody will be mistreated in detention and granted the right to a free and fair trial. Since the post-coup purges began in July 2016, it is estimated that over 47,000 people have been arrested by Turkish authorities, and the crackdown continues. 

On 20th April 2017, Turkish authorities detained fifteen foreign employees working for an international CSO near the Syrian border in Gaziantep. The activists, working for the U.S.-based International Medical Corps were detained under suspicion of not having the correct employment permits to work in Turkey. A spokesperson for the ICSO strongly refuted this claim, stating that all employees had the appropriate documentation. This is the latest example of Turkish authorities' harassment of humanitarian aid workers. As we've previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, the recent expulsion of Mercy Corps highlights the government's hostility toward international civil society groups operational in Turkey. The fifteen individuals could face deportation if found to have violated employment regulations.  


A report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's International Referendum Observation Mission highlighted several restrictions on civic freedoms in the run up to the referendum. In particular, the extended state of emergency led to a situation wherein groups opposing the constitutional amendments were unable to adequately mobilise. Similarly, given the widespread assault on independent media outlets and journalists, media coverage of the campaign opposing the referendum was hardly visible, leaving voters without objective, independent  information on key aspects of the constitutional reforms. Independent European election monitors have announced that the referendum was not free and fair and there are multiple reports of observation groups being obstructed from carrying out their duties at polling stations.

The recent detention of an Italian writer and human rights defender drew international condemnation and illustrates the risks faced by journalists working in Turkey. Italian national Gabriele Del Grande was in Turkey researching for his upcoming book on the Syrian conflict and the emergence of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS) when he was arrested by Turkish authorities. After being taken into custody on 9th April 2017 in Hatay, southeastern Turkey, Del Grande was repeatedly interrogated by Turkish security forces and given no reason for his arrest. After being denied access to legal counsel and Italian consular assistance, Del Grande responded by going on a hunger strike to draw attention to his illegal detention. On 24th April 2017, Del Grande was finally released and deported back to Italy. Del Grande's case is just one example of the Turkish authorities' brazen disregard for fundamental human rights. Since 15th July 2016, the journalists association - Turkey Purge - have documented 231 cases of journalists being arbitrarily arrested, and with many still being held in detention today.

Peaceful Assembly

Several protests were held following the final results of the referendum. In particular, protests erupted over the state's decision to accept ballots that had not been officially stamped. The authorities detained 31 people as demonstrations took place in several cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Eskisehir.