January 30, 2015

UN takes up rights abuses by Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkey's deplorable human rights record, particularly regarding the terrible situation of press freedoms and a partisan judiciary, was registered at the highest level this week when many of the 193 UN member states raised serious concerns about the backslide that Turkey has been experiencing under the authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on rights and freedoms.

The debate, which was held during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Turkey's record at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, also showed how conspiracy theories the government has been feeding to the media to create a distraction does not have an audience at the UN. The Turkish delegation, led by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, did not even have the courage to raise their "parallel" paranoid defense, which is great hoax his government often resorts back at home to masquerade the truth and scapegoat others for its troubles.

When Arınç took the floor several times to respond to criticism, he did not even utter the name of a leading civic group that Erdoğan labels the "parallel structure," a derogatory term constructed by Erdoğan to refer to the Gülen movement, which has been critical of his regime's corruption, nepotism and problems with the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights. After all, the UN Human Rights Council stands for rights and freedoms for civic, social and faith-based movements and strongly against stigmatizing, discriminating against and marginalizing vulnerable groups with hateful and vitriolic narrative as well as policy actions that amount to outright pressure and intimidation.

The first shot at the Turkish delegation was fired by US Representative to the UN Human Rights Council Keith Harper, who said, “We are concerned about growing restrictions on freedom of expression, including censorship of new media and the Internet and provisions of Turkish law that unduly limit peaceful assembly." Harper, who is the first Native American ambassador in the US Foreign Service, was also critical of government interference in the judiciary, and he asked Arınç to consult civil society, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) and the Council of Europe (CoE) Venice Commission before embarking on judicial reforms.

Harper, a former judge, also stated, “We are concerned that the government interference into the judiciary and law enforcement sector, such as recent efforts to restructure courts, undermines the rule of law.” This was the most direct criticism of Turkey by a senior American official so far on the Turkish government's unprecedented reassignments, dismissals and purges in the police force, which is the main law enforcement agency in Turkey. The point explicitly made by Harper was about the Turkish government's blatant attempts to create special courts in order to prosecute media professionals, critics and opponents of the ruling party.

Harper noted that the US recommends that Turkey “strengthen protections of freedom of expression by allowing discourse and greater access to information both online and offline and ensure the penal code and anti-terror laws are consistent with international obligations.” Since many journalists are imprisoned, detained pending trial and prosecuted under archaic anti-terror laws that are not in line with the European and international standards Turkey has pledged to comply with, the US government was sending a clear message to Turkey that the journalists were not thrown into jail because of journalistic activity.

Yet, while defending himself against Harper's remarks, Arınç chose to stick to the same line his current boss Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former boss Erdoğan have been parroting for some time. He said 31 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey, with 29 convicted and two detained pending trial, and that the charges have nothing to do with the profession of journalism.

In fact, Hidayet Karaca, the manager of the leading Samanyolu TV network, has been in jail for more than 40 days because his network aired a soap opera five years ago. He has been charged by the public prosecutor for setting up an unnamed terror group and administering it.

Karaca asked the judge during the arraignment hearing to explain to which terror group he allegedly belongs and where the evidence is to qualify for such egregious accusations. No response was provided.

Furthermore, Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily, faced similar terror charges. In video footage recorded in the courtroom and later leaked on the Internet, Dumanlı was seen asking the judge what evidence the prosecutor had against him. The judge responded that all the evidence consisted of two op-ed articles and one story published in the newspaper five years ago.

Hence, Harper was right in pointing out the abuse of anti-terror laws in Turkey to punish critical journalists and opponents. In response, both the national report presented by Turkey to the UN and the oral defense arguments made by Arınç were full of weak statements that drew upon myths rather than facts. Arınç defended the police raids on the media on Dec. 14 that led to the detentions of Karaca and Dumanlı, and said the government cannot interfere in judicial investigations.

This was an outright lie, as the government knew about the pending raids and had even prepared for fallout from the national and international stage, according to an admission by Davutoğlu.

In addition to Harper, others spoke critically of Turkey. Norwegian Ambassador Steffen Kongstad, British Ambassador Karen Pierce, Irish Ambassador Patricia O'Brien, First Secretary at Permanent Mission of Germany to the UN Frank Jarasch, Deputy Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN Catherine Godin, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Australian Permanent Mission to the UN Tanya Bennett, Deputy Permanent Representative of Finland to the UN Renne Klinge and Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Austria to the UN Thomas Zehetner joined many others in bashing Turkey for infringements of the right to the freedoms of expression, press and assembly, and for its blunt interference in the judiciary and ongoing discriminatory practices in many areas.

Perhaps special thanks are in order for Thomas Wagner, deputy permanent representative of France to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva, who noted the difficulty that journalists in Turkey have been facing in gaining access to government events. That includes my media group, Zaman, which has the largest-circulated dailies for both its Turkish and English editions, as well as the Aksiyon weekly magazine and the Cihan news agency.

They have not been provided with accreditation by the government to cover press events by the Erdoğan regime. Taking the floor, Wagner urged the Turkish government to “guarantee free access and without discrimination to the media to all bodies which require particular accreditation."

Sisse Norman Canguilhem, the first secretary at the Denmark mission to the UN in Geneva who specializes in human rights, was among the few who specifically raised concerns over the government's interference in corruption investigations that went public on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013, which incriminated senior government officials. The investigations, which were the largest corruption scandal in the history of the Turkish Republic, were hushed up by loyalists who replaced the lead graft prosecutors under a government-instigated move.

“We take note of reports on the increased interference by the executive into judiciary and lack of transparency and signs of impunity related to the December 2013 corruption charges," Canguilhem said.

Apart from interventions made by the representatives of UN member states, both the summary and compilation reports prepared and submitted for a consideration by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights included a series of critical statements on how Turkey has fallen short of implementing its international human rights obligations. The reports highlighted the government's increased interference in the criminal justice system and the increased politicization of the judiciary; a lack of accountability for public officials; the police brutally crushing anti-government protests, silencing the independent and critical media; frequent use of criminal defamation laws by officials against their critics; curbing civil society activism and the freedom of association; expanding the powers of the intelligence organization without judicial oversight; and many other human rights violations.

Turkey was named and shamed at the largest international body in the world and looks like it will continue to get a flurry of criticism if it does not put its house in order in terms of rights and freedoms.

Published on Today's Zaman, 30 January 2015, Friday