Student protests calling for academic freedom met with excessive force, LGBTI students targeted

Student protests calling for academic freedom met with excessive force, LGBTI students targeted
Students stage protests over academic freedom (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images).


The Turkish parliament approved a controversial bill that came into effect on 31st December 2020. The bill was designed to combat financing of terrorism, but the new measures will severely restrict civic space and stifle the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs). The legislation permits tighter government control on CSOs by giving the state the power to block donation campaigns of NGOs, replace their boards with trustees and suspend their operations. NGOs have condemned the legislation, arguing that it violates the right of freedom of association, and that terrorism is being used as a pretext as only six of the 43 articles address the issue. Close to 700 Turkish CSOs signed a declaration demanding the government withdraw the provisions relating to civil society. Human Rights Watch said that the law will be used as a means to crack down on CSOs.

“The Turkish government’s new law on curbing financing of terrorism, with the new powers it grants the Interior Ministry, conceals within it another purpose: that is to curtail and restrict the legitimate activities of any nongovernmental group it doesn’t like. This law will become a dangerous tool to limit freedom of association, and the provisions relating to nongovernmental organisations should be withdrawn immediately.”- Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

In a separate development, the application to establish the "Dersim Culture and History Foundation" was rejected by the Court of First Instance in Tunceli. The reason for the rejection was stated as "the purpose of the Foundation should not be against the constitution of the Republic and the basic principles of the constitution, law, public moral and national unity, and it should not aim to support members of a certain race or community". The decision received many reactions from human rights defenders and the Alevi community in Turkey, who consider this rejection as a threat to freedom of association.

Failure to release HRD

Although the Council of Europe had urged Turkey to ensure the immediate release of Human Rights Defender Osman Kavala, on 6th November 2020 the Istanbul 36th High Criminal Court ruled in favour of the continuation of his detention. Following the ruling, the attorneys applied to the Constitutional Court claiming that the right to personal liberty and security was violated as the imprisonment was unlawful. On 3rd December 2020, the CoE Committee of Ministers adopted an interim resolution regarding Osman Kavala’s case, which urged the authorities to ensure that the Constitutional Court addresses the applicant’s complaint without further delay and again urging for Kavala’s immediate release.

Kavala has been deprived of his liberty since 2017, when he was arrested for attempting to overthrow the Government and the constitutional order in Turkey. In February 2020 he was acquitted, however in October 2020 new charges of "political or military espionage”were brought against him. In December 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled Kavala’s detention was in violation of his right to liberty and security under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Amnesty International also called for Kavala’s release.

“A year almost to the day after the ECHR judgment today’s resolution sends a clear message to the Turkish authorities that his continued imprisonment cannot and will not be tolerated,” Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International.

Yet, on 15th December 2020, the Constitutional Court forwarded the application to the General Assembly, which concluded that Kavala's right to personal liberty and security had not been violated.

Age restriction on LGBTI products

LGBTI+ family organisations condemned the decision of the Ministry of Trade to impose an age restriction on LGBTI+ products, including rainbow-themed items. The organisations suggested that the provision would incite further hate against LGBTI persons.

“We think that a state institution should be based on scientific principles when making decisions instead of such an ambiguous and subjective justification. There is no single decision made by acknowledged medical authorities that LGBTI + and rainbow themes will adversely affect the development of children. On the contrary, internationally recognized institutions such as the World Health Organization, the Turkish Medical Association...have decisions and statements stating that LGBTI + is not a disease or an unusual condition.”
“Homophobia and transphobia, which are unfortunately fueled by various institutions of the state, will gain courage for acts of hate and will target our children who have no offense other than having different sexual orientations and gender identities.”

To mark Human Rights Day on 10th December, 805 Turkish citizens released a joint statement demanding a peaceful and secure life. Following the statement, they were targeted by Devlet Bahçeli, the Chair of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is in the People's Alliance with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In response to this, an online petition was launched to show solidarity.

Peaceful Assembly

A lawsuit was filed against 46 people who protested at the 700th gathering of Saturday Mothers in Istanbul during August 2018. The individuals were charged with participation in unlawful demonstrations. In addition, during the reporting period, several protests took place:

  • Women’s Assemblies protested in Beşiktaş on 22nd November 2020 to petition against male violence and gender inequality ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. They held a banner which read: ”We will have the Istanbul Convention implemented to stop violence, impunity, suspicious deaths and feminicides." On 25th November 2020, women gathered in Cumhuriyet Square calling for the introduction of government policy to prevent violence against women. A petition from a women’s rights group garnered 600,000 signatures for a campaign to demand the effective implementation of the Turkish conventions that protect women against violence. During the protest, a statement was read:
We do not want a new law. We want the İstanbul Convention, the guarantee of women's and children's safety of life, and Law no. 6284 on the Protection of Family and Prevention of Violence Against Women to be implemented. We are calling on all authorities to follow the 12 steps set by the Council of Europe for the implementation of the İstanbul Convention, the most comprehensive legal basis about this issue, and adapted for Turkey by us as the Women's Platform for Equality (EŞİK).”
  • Shop owners in Istanbul gathered on 24th November 2020 to express the lack of support they have received in the COVID-19 measures. They demanded that the state consider shop owners in their COVID-19 support, especially in relation to supporting loans and delaying taxes.
  • Police and gendarmerie forces halted protests planned by miners in Ankara, detaining over 100 workers on 24th November 2020. The metal workers were protesting against unpaid severance and wages. The United Metal Workers’ Union released a statement condemning the police action, arguing they protested fairly and within their rights. A smaller group went on to protest on 25th November 2020.
  • AtlasGlobal workers protested for unpaid wages and severance for six continuous days. However, on 10th December 2020 nine people were detained for disturbing public order.
  • Antalya Women's Platform attempted to protest against male violence and sexual assаult on 29th December 2020 through performing the Las Tesis dance which started in Chile. However, the protest was prevented by the Turkish police due to the lyrics of the song.

Students protest for academic freedom

On 4th January 2021, thousands of students from Boğaziçi University protested against the appointment of a new trustee rector. The demonstrators argued that the new trustee presented a means for Erdogan to curtail academic freedom due to their previous relations and called for student elections to decide the rector. The university faculty released a statement, calling the appointment a violation of academic freedom and democratic values. Police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to end the protest. It is also reported that some students were detained and that on 5th January 2021 anti-terrorism police conducted raids on students' homes in Istanbul and detained 16 people. President Erdogan labelled the demonstrators as terrorists and denounced LGBTI youths, who during the protest hung a picture depicting the Kaaba in Mecca, one of Islam's holiest sites, and images of the LGBTI rainbow flag. Four students were arrested in relation to the artwork and are accused of ‘inciting hatred’.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the extent of detentions and excessive force used by police since the beginning of the protests. It records that about 560 student protesters were arrested during protests in 38 cities, with most released after a short time. Protesters from Istanbul, who were released after being detained, recounted how they were strip-searched, verbally abused and threatened by the authorities during detention. Some protesters reported having had guns held to their head during house raids. LGBTI persons were also targeted, where police raided a room used by a student LGBT club and confiscated flags and books. In one case, police raided the home of two transgender women who took part in protests. They reported that police remained in the room when they had to undergo a medical examination for detainees, used transphobic language against them and even threatened to rape one of the women. In addition, Bulu, the new rector, issued a decision to shut down the students’ LGBTI club. Details of the use of excessive force by the police include:

  • A protester recalled how “police grabbed and dragged her, injuring her wrists, arms and back”.
  • HRW has seen videos and images of students who, as a result of police violence, had broken teeth, faces covered in blood, and several police officers using physical violence by kicking protesters.
“Erdoğan’s appointment of an unelected rector to Boğaziçi University and the violent arrests of students who had peacefully protested the move encapsulates the government’s disregard for basic human rights. Imposing an unelected presidential-appointee rector on a university with no consultation demonstrates a lack of respect for academic freedom and the autonomy of universities in Turkey,”- Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The authorities should protect and affirm LGBT students’ rights to organise and express themselves, rather than attacking them. The Turkish authorities should respect the right to assembly, stop using abusive police power to silence dissent, and ensure the immediate release of students arbitrarily detained,”- Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Related to police intervention, a main opposition MP reported that the Turkish police and gendarmerie forces intervened in around 1,215 demonstrations in 2019, and at least 700 protests between June and October 2020. The MP argued that police action to halt protests endangers public order.

In a separate development, the Law No 7526 on Restructuring of Certain Receivables and Amendments to Certain Laws was published in the Official Gazette on 17th November 2020 which amended the Law on Mitigation of The Impacts of COVID-19 Outbreak on Economic and Social Life. Based on these amendments, the authorisation by the Minister of Interior to postpone the general assemblies and annual declarations of associations, was extended three times, each time valid for three months. Following the extension, general assemblies and annual declarations of associations were postponed until 28th February 2021. The postponement of general assemblies was later applied to foundations by notification from the General Directorate of Foundations. Since online general assemblies are not allowed by law, some foundations could not convene their general assembly physically in 2020.


Council continues to sanction independent media

A report by Human Rights Watch details how the Radio and Television Supreme Council, Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, has imposed disproportionate sanctions against independent television and radio channels critical of Turkish authorities. It concluded that the watchdog has imposed further censorship of independent media beyond state measures through issuing broadcasting bans and fines. Most recently, on 2nd December 2020, the Council fined television station Habertürk and ordered the suspension of five episodes of a programme. This comes after an opposition politician who appeared as a guest on the programme on 28th November 2020 criticised Qatari investment in Turkish military tank production. The Council found that the “criticism was contrary to the integrity of the state and the principles of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in violation of article 8/1a of Law 6112, which regulates broadcasting”.The report found that in the first 11 months of 2020, the Council issued at least 43 sanctions against seven independent TV channels and radio stations and imposed fines amounting to 8,433,730 Turkish liras (869,285 Euros). HRW states that these violations of freedom of expression have maintained the unfavourable conditions for Turkey’s EU membership.

It was reported that the RTÜK issued more monetary penalties on TV outlets critical of the government throughout 2020, compared to pro-government channels.

Social media giants give in to new digital law

On 11th December 2020, Turkey’s Information and Communications Technologies Authority imposed fines on online media giants for not complying with a new digital law. A first fine of 10 million Turkish Lira (about 1 million Euros) was issued in November 2020. A further fine of 30 million Turkish lira, (3,10 million Euros) was enforced after the media giants failed to appoint an official representative to the country as required by the law.

In response to contentions between social media giants and the Turkish authorities, YouTube appointed a local representative in Turkey on 16th December 2020. In addition, Facebook also agreed to appoint a local representative but warned that it would withdraw if asked to take any actions which violate its community standards. Rights organisations have warned of the potential human rights violations that YouTube and other social media platforms may have to take responsibility for as a result of this decision. They have argued that the move will set a precedent for other social media platforms to follow the same direction, and therefore contribute to arbitrary censorship and compromise people’s freedom of expression. Milena Buyum, Amnesty International's Turkey Campaigner, said:

“Over the last weeks, we have watched as companies, one-by-one, have complied with a draconian new law that will stifle dissent. Facebook's decision leaves them - and Google, YouTube and others - in serious danger of becoming an instrument of state censorship. They must tell us and their users in Turkey what concrete steps they will take to prevent this from happening.”
“The tech companies should not bow to this pressure or enter into behind-closed-doors agreements with the authorities. As long as the environment for freedom of expression and the rule of law is this hostile in Turkey, other social media platforms should continue not to comply with the amendments to the Internet law,”- Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19.

European Court rules for release of political activist

On 22nd December 2020, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled on a case related to former People’s Democratic Party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, an opposition politician who had been detained for over four years on terrorism charges. The Grand Chamber indicated that Demirtas should be released and that his rights were violated under five categories, including freedom of expression and liberty. Following the decision, the Ministry of Interior stated that “the ECHR ruling, whatever the reason, is meaningless”. This is the second time an ECHR ruling has not been implemented. Turkey’s decision not to implement the ECHR rulings in Demirtas and Kavala’s cases contradicts the ECHR and other international conventions, as well as the Turkish Constitution. Since Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which means that it accepts the authority of the Council of Europe and the Human Rights Court and promises to comply with the decisions of the administration, ECHR decisions are binding. According to paragraph 4 of article 46 of the ECHR, if a state insists on not fulfilling final and binding decisions given by the Court of Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers starts a complaint procedure with a two-thirds majority vote. At the end of the procedure, Turkey might face some serious sanctions including blocking licences to becoming a candidate in Council of Europe elections and being removed from the Council of Europe.

Incidents against journalists

The International Press Institute released a statement on 10th January 2021, known as ‘Working Journalists’ Day”, to express solidarity with journalists in Turkey, and demand that the authorities end abuse and persecution of media workers. The organisation stated that access to journalism is heavily policed, with constant judicial and financial pressure placed on media and journalists who do not promote the government’s political interests.

During the reporting period, there were numerous cases of journalists and media workers being jailed or sentenced to prison. This includes the former Managing Editor of the newspaper Yeni Yaşam, Osman Akın, journalist Can Dündar, journalist Alican Uludağ, Dicle Müftüoğlu, editor for Mesopotamia Agency, social media users commenting on a sexual harassment case and NGO workers. Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the freedom of expression of Ahmet Şık, a journalist and an independent MP, was violated.

A case of journalists being harassed was also documented by the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ):

  • Al-Monitor journalist Amberin Zaman, along with her colleague Dan Wilkofsky, were targeted by an online smear campaign for their story about recruiting young Syrian Kurds into armed organisations. Zaman received insults on social media for three days.

In addition, there were several publications were released that focused on freedom of expression in Turkey:

  • The Press in Arrest initiative published a Press Freedom Report in December 2020, in which they found that at least 40 journalists were prosecuted in at least 30 press-related trials in eight provinces. In an attempt to break down the status of these 40 journalists, the report highlights that, due to COVID-19 measures, the hearings were closed to observers and the public under the pretext of “protection measures”.
  • The Contemporary Journalists' Association (ÇGD) released their quarterly report on Turkey’s media, in which it found that physical assaults against journalists had continued in the last three months.
  • The IPI released the findings from their mission to Turkey in October 2020, examining the new social media law introduced in October 2020. The report recommends that the international community and EU be prepared to negotiate with Turkey for an improvement on human rights.
  • Twitter published a transparency report for the first half of 2020, which found that Turkey topped many of Twitter’s censorship categories, including the greatest number of court orders, third-party takedowns and total number of accounts and tweets withheld.