Intimidation of civil society through judicial processes
- The process that started with the arrest of 10 human rights defenders (who had gathered in Istanbul Büyükada for a training workshop) on 5 July 2017 following a police raid, has turned into a campaign of intimidation and threat towards the NGOs operating in Turkey and all rights defenders.
Rights defenders were tried on charges such as “committing a crime on behalf of an illegal organization without being a member” and “membership of an armed terrorist organization”, on the grounds of their legal rights advocacy activities.
The case, which led to reactions and campaigns on the national and international level, culminated in prison sentences for four rights defenders on 3 July 2020. The defenders’ appeal was rejected. The file is currently pending before the Court of Cassation for review of the appeal requests.
- Many executives of the Human Rights Association (IHD) were detained on various dates for their rights advocacy activities, investigations and lawsuits were filed against them. Human Rights Association Malatya Branch President Gönül Öztürkoğlu was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison for “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” in December 2019. Istanbul Branch President Gülseren Yoleri was arrested for her speech at a Saturday Mothers meeting in February 2020. Human Rights Association’s Central Executive Board Member Raci Bilici was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison for “membership of a terrorist organization” in March 2020 for legitimate human rights activities. In October 2020, Criminal proceedings were initiated against the Human Rights Association President Eren Keskin with the allegation of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization”, on account of social media posts she had made 5 years ago. In November 2020, Balıkesir Branch President Rafet Fahri Semizoğlu was arrested on the grounds of his prison visits that he had carried out for reporting activities of the association. A criminal investigation was launched against him with the allegation of “providing finances to an illegal organization”. While Ağrı Branch President Atilla Özbey and Branch Manager Emin Yıldız were arrested in October 2020, the previous term Ağrı Branch President Abdulhadi Karakurt was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison. Adıyaman Branch President Bülent Temel was also among those detained in Diyarbakır in November 2020.
- The report “The rights violations that women faced and their experiences during the curfews and forced migration process” prepared by the Migration Monitoring Association has been the subject of a criminal investigation with the allegation of “publicly insulting the military or police organization of the State”.
- Despite the verdict of acquittal on February 18, 2020, in respect of the civil society activist Osman Kavala (who took center stage in the Gezi Park protests trial) and all other defendants, and the release decision issued along with his acquittal, Osman Kavala was arrested again for another criminal investigation without being released. However, Osman Kavala had been previously arrested and released on the grounds of his alleged involvement in the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, for which a re-arrest warrant was issued. In its violation judgment dated 10 December 2019, the ECtHR ruled that this detention was unlawful and was carried out for political purposes. Despite this judgment, Kavala was not released. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe discussed Kavala’s ongoing detention at its meetings in September, October, and December 2020. Despite the Committee’s demands for the implementation of the ECtHR decision and the immediate release of Osman Kavala, he continues to be held in detention unfairly. In this process, the Constitutional Court postponed its decision, citing the new bill of the indictment issued by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on September 29, 2020, the day on which the Constitutional Court was supposed to rule on the individual application of Kavala concerning his unlawful detention according to its previous announcement.
- The Constitutional Court later announced that this application would be discussed on December 15, 2020. However, on 15 December 2020, they referred the case to Grand Chamber for review.
In this new indictment, Kavala is facing aggravated life imprisonment on charges of “abolishing the constitution”, and a prison sentence of up to 20 years for “espionage”. The first hearing of this case will be held on December 18 in Istanbul.
The impunity policies continue
Rights defender and the president of Diyarbakır Bar Association Tahir Elçi was killed on 28 November 2015 when giving a press statement in front of the Four-Legged Minaret to draw attention to the historical artifacts damaged in the clashes in Sur district during the curfews. Elçi gave the statement together with the members of the board of directors and lawyers of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. After nearly 5 years, the trial of four defendants, including 3 police officers, began in October 2020.
In the criminal proceedings initiated as a result of the intense efforts of Tahir Elçi’s family and his lawyers, the defendant police officers were not heard face to face in the case in which they were tried on the charge of “negligent homicide”, which is not proportionate to the severity of the crime committed. The defendant police officers’ defense was requested by means of SEGBIS (Audio and Video Information System), the demands of the lawyers of the Elçi family were not heard by the court, they were interrupted, threatened with expulsion from the courtroom, and their right to participate effectively in the trial was denied. Therefore, the lawyers of the family of Tahir Elçi rejected the panel of judges, who raised serious concerns about their independence and impartiality due to their attitude, behavior, and decisions during the hearing. The panel of judges postponed the hearing to 3 March 2021.
‘Saturday Mothers’ on trial
Turkey’s one of the most long-standing movements for rights struggle, which has been ongoing for decades, the Saturday Mothers/People, are being criminalized since the 700th meeting week on 25 August 2018.
The 700th meeting was blocked by security forces. The Saturday Mothers / People, IHD members and executives, and those who came to support them were stopped with water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Minister of Interior Affairs Süleyman Soylu accused the Saturday Mothers/People of “trying to open a field of legitimacy to terrorist organizations” and “acting as the spokesperson for terrorist organizations”.
This crackdown approach taken towards Saturday Mothers/People has been going on since the 700th week. On 18 November 2020 criminal proceedings were brought against 46 people who had been detained during the 700th week of the police intervention
Among those asked to stand trial are relatives of the disappeared, İHD managers and members. A prison sentence of up to 3 years is requested for violating “The Meetings and Demonstration Marches Act” “. The trial will begin on 25 March 2021.
Physicians as targets
A large number of physicians, most of whom were members or directors of the Medical Chambers, who made statements that were inconsistent with government policies and statements regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, criticized the government’s policy to fight the pandemic and explained the real situation and figures about the pandemic, were arrested and investigated.
- The heads of the Van-Hakkari Medical Chamber and the Mardin Medical Chamber were called to give statements within the context of criminal investigations initiated against them on account of their interviews with the press in the provinces they were responsible for, regarding public health and the spread of the Covid-19 virus that caused the global pandemic. The accusation against them was declared as “creating fear and panic among the people”.
- Chairman of the Urfa Medical Chamber Dr. Ömer Melik and his General Secretary Dr. Osman Yüksekyayla were arrested due to the Chamber’s posts on COVID-19 on social media and a criminal investigation was launched against them. All of the posts subject to investigation concerned the protection of the public and healthcare workers in the fight against the pandemic.
- An investigation was launched against Prof. Dr. Kayıhan Pala for the following statement he made on 21 April 2020: “We think we’re yet to see the peak of the epidemic in Turkey”. According to the Turkish Medical Association, the Uludag University Rectorate, to which the prosecutor’s office sent the file with the decision of “non-jurisdiction” for which a criminal complaint was made, also decided that there was no need for an investigation after the report that was prepared.
- On 16 November 2020, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), the head physician of the Cizre Reference Center and the Sirnak Chamber President Dr. Serdar Küni was sentenced to prison for “membership in a terrorist organization”. The main reason for the punishment is “to treat/attend to people alleged to be members of an illegal organization”.
- Elected President of the Central Council of the Turkish Medical Association for the period 2020-2022, Prof. Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı and the Turkish Medical Association were targeted by AKP party leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdogan said at his party’s group meeting on 14 October 2020, “Since when can those who are involved in terrorism take over an important organization like the Turkish Medical Association? The Turkish Medical Association and some other professional organizations are clearly violating the Constitution. “We will do a similar work as that of the [creation of] multiple bar associations”.
- On 20 November 2020, Şeyhmus Gökalp, member of the Turkish Medical Association’s High Honor Board, was arrested alongside a large number of rights defenders, lawyers, and NGO representatives, within the scope of an investigation that was stated to be made against the Democratic Society Congress (DTK). On 23 November 2020, he was detained on remand with the allegation of “being a member of an illegal organization”. Despite the reactions, his pre-trial detention continues.
The space for civil society has gradually narrowed
- Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Ministry of Interior Affairs extended the duration of the ban on holding general assemblies for the non-governmental organizations first until December 1, 2020, and then again until February 28, 2021.
General assemblies are a fundamental activity in terms of association activities and by taking necessary precautions under pandemic conditions, it may still be possible for them to take place with some alternative regulations. The ban as a whole, however, turned into another intervention against civil society activities and reached a level that constitutes a barrier to the activities.
- Bans on protests and activities continued in 2020 in many provinces, especially in Kurdish provinces. Since November 2016, uninterrupted bans on meetings and demonstrations and all kinds of outdoor activism have been continuing in Van for 1474 days. On the other hand, de facto bans and obstructions are carried out effectively across the country.
- The law, which came to the agenda with the proposal of AKP deputies and obliged notification of membership of an association, was adopted by the Turkish Grand National Assembly on March 24, 2020. The application of this law makes way for collecting data on the members of associations). Accordingly, another obstacle has been created to deter those who wanted to become members of NGOs.
- Social media, which is a very important channel for demands and calls of rights organizations and of those whose rights have been violated, has also become the subject of new draft laws, as the government wants to regulate it. The draft law, which includes regulations to block access and to facilitate censorship, was removed from the omnibus law (“torba yasa”) at the beginning of the pandemic process at the last minute. However, it was later adopted and entered into force in July 2020.
Politics of pressure against bar associations and lawyers
- The former president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association and 10 board members are either under investigation or on trial because of the statement they published on 24 April 2017, on the occasion of the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, as well as their statements on many different issues and the reports they prepared.
- An investigation by the Şanlıurfa Public Prosecutor’s Office was initiated against Şanlıurfa Bar Association President Abdullah Öncel and 26 lawyers registered with the bar association on the grounds that they organized a press conference and a sit-in in October 2020, protesting the changes planned to be made to the Law on Attorneyship. The lawyers were accused of violating The Meetings and Demonstration Marches Act”
- An investigation was initiated upon the complaint against the Istanbul Bar Association, on the grounds that the photograph of Ebru Timtik was hung in the Bar association building during her funeral ceremony in August 2020.
- The Ankara authorities announced that all kinds of meetings, marches, and activities were restricted for 15 days prior to the “Defense Meeting”, which was to be held by 78 bar associations against the AKP and MHP’s “çoklu baro” proposal to the Parliament. Bar associations who decided to march from their neighboring provinces were prevented from entering Ankara.
- Despite the reactions and criticisms, an amendment was made to the Law on Attorneyship in July 2020, and a system called “multiple bar associations” (“çoklu baro”) was introduced. The way was paved for the establishment of more than one bar association in provinces with a large number of lawyers. Representations of major bar associations in the Turkey Bar Association were decreased. This has dealt a heavy blow to the freedom of association of lawyers and the autonomy of bar associations, and steps have been taken to weaken the activities of bar associations, whose voices are increasingly vocal against human rights violations.
- Long-term prison sentences were given to a group of lawyers from the ÇHD and HHB on charges such as “leading an illegal organization”, “membership of an illegal organization” and “knowingly aiding an illegal organization” were approved by the Supreme Court in September 2020. Many lawyers are still in prison as part of this trial, either as being convicted or being detained.
- Sevda Çelik Özbingöl, one of the lawyers of the Şanlıurfa Bar Association, who had been detained during an operation in March 2020, was released at her hearing last week after a 9-month detention period. In the meantime, criminal proceedings were also brought against Çelik Özbingöl and a group of people including lawyers and politicians. The accusations against them relied on their work concerning human rights violations. The next hearing in this trial will take place on 3 February 2021.
- Several operations were carried out and investigations were initiated against lawyers who are members of the Association of Lawyers for Freedom (Özgürlük için Hukukçular Derneği/ÖHD) for the professional activities as lawyers. Lawyer Adnan Erol, an ÖHD member, is currently detained on remand.
Obstructions to the activities of unions
- In November 2020, the gendarmerie intervened when the Soma Uyar Mining workers walked to Ankara for their indemnities and for worker’s health and work safety. After the intervention, the experts of the Independent Organization for Mine Work, Kamil Kartal and Başaran Aksu were arrested.
- Karaman Ermenekli miners have also been carrying out their demonstrations since August 2020. Like the Soma miners, their Ankara march on 12 October 2020 was prevented by law enforcement intervention in front of the mine.
- 25 union executives and members, including DİSK Chairman Arzu Çerkezoğlu, who wanted to march to Taksim on 1 May were arrested.
- DİSK Tekstil Gaziantep Regional Representative Mehmet Türkmen was arrested in April 2020 for his social media posts about factories forcing workers to work.
- In May 2020, a decision to change the place of duty, in the meaning of ‘being exiled’, was issued in respect of the railway worker Tugay Kartal who had worked for 43 years and who was a member of the United Transport Workers Union and Haydarpaşa Solidarity Union. However, the implementation of the decision was suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Makum Alagöz, President of the Izmir branch and Headquarters manager of the Deriteks Union, which is affiliated to Türk-İş, is being tried in 4 separate criminal trials due to the social media posts he made about the working conditions of union members.
- Many groups from the labor and union movements such as the Bimeks Resistance, the Independent Metal-İş, the Real, Uygun / Makro and Uzel Resistance faced disproportionate law enforcement interventions during their press statements and protests.
Women and LGBTI + struggles
- While the opening of the Istanbul Convention for discussion has increased the police repression of women and the LGBTI+ movement, the President of Religious Affairs targeted the LGBTI+ community during the Friday sermon in April 2020, as he had done before in July 2019. He targeted the LGBTI+ community and those living with HIV, as being the cause of the COVID-19 epidemic.
The bar associations of Ankara, Diyarbakır, and İzmir, and many non-governmental organizations reacted to the speech and made statements.
While an investigation was initiated against the executives of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, a criminal complaint was filed against the executives of the Ankara Bar Association with the allegations of “inciting the public to hatred and enmity or humiliation”, “hatred and discrimination” as well as “defamation”.
- Dozens of people were arrested in four separate Istanbul Convention demonstrations, held between July and August 2020.
- ‘Las Tesis’ protests against femicides and violence against women that had been launched in Chile, soon spread to the whole world and also found response in Turkey. Women’s organizations called for action in various cities to react to the murders of women. The protest, held in Istanbul, Kadıköy, was intervened by law enforcement officers because the lyrics of the songs constituted a criminal act. A lawsuit was filed against the arrested activists in February 2020.
- The directors and members of the Rosa Women’s Association, whose main field of activity is to fight against all types of violence against women, were arrested and detained in the police raids that started in May 2020 and were organized one after another. The founders and board members were charged with “membership of an armed terrorist organization”. So far, two members of the association have received prison sentences for this charge.
- On 10 December on International Human Rights Day, the 4th hearing of the criminal proceedings initiated against 18 students and an academic from the Middle East Technical University (METU) on account of their participation in the LGBTI+ Pride Parade, held on campus on 10 May 2019, took place. The trial court postponed the trial on the ground that the prosecutor’s opinion was not ready. The next hearing will be held on 30 April, 2021
Environmental rights advocates
In September 2020, the Water and Conscience Watch held in Mount Ida was forcibly dispersed and defenders were fined hundreds of thousands of Turkish liras. This event symbolized the repression of environmental rights and ecology advocates.
Solidarity Network for Human Rights Defenders – Turkey
Solidarity Network for Human Rights Defenders – Turkey is a network of human rights organizations which insists that defending human rights is a universal right. The Network is committed to strengthen solidarity and communication among its members and to challenge all forms of repression and harassment against human rights defenders