February 24, 2016

Rights and freedoms in Turkey regressed further in 2015, Amnesty says

"It is unfortunate but it is impossible to say that 2015 has been a progressive year for Turkey," Amnesty International Turkey Campaigns Advocacy Director Ruhat Sena Akşener noted in her opening remarks during a press conference held in İstanbul on Wednesday morning.

An annual report was released by prominent rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) that showed there was a dramatic decline in human rights, particularly freedom of the press, in Turkey over the course of 2015.

Encroachments on press freedom were heavily stressed by the Amnesty representative, who said, “While all human rights hold importance, the violations against the press were unprecedented," adding, "Freedom of the press in 2015 in Turkey has fallen victim to pressures in a way that it has never before."

The report explained that one of the most targeted groups by the government was the Hizmet movement, affiliated with Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, in particular the movement's media organs.

It stated that "In October, Digiturk, a private digital platform removed seven channels from its service. Four days ahead of the 1 November election, police accompanied a court-appointed government trustee and forcibly entered the head offices of the Koza İpek conglomerate, cutting live broadcast by two news channels, Bugün and Kanaltürk, and blocking the printing of the Millet and Bugün newspapers."

It was not only Gülen-linked media groups that faced the government crackdown as all critical media outlets faced some sort of pressure from the government.

"The government exerted immense pressure on the media, targeting media companies and digital distribution networks, and singling out critical journalists, who were then threatened and physically attacked by often unidentified assailants. Mainstream journalists were fired after criticizing the government. News websites, including large swathes of the Kurdish press, were blocked on unclear grounds by administrative orders aided by a compliant judiciary," said the AI report.

Turkish and foreign journalists who were sent to prison or deported, such as Mehmet Baransu, Can Dündar, Erdem Gül, Canan Coşkun, Frederike Geerdink and Mohammed Rasool for allegations of insulting a state official or for terrorism charges, were also mentioned in the report.

Hundreds of people including journalists, academics and even teenagers are facing charges of insulting the president in Turkey. People are even being prosecuted for critical messages they have posted on social media platforms.

Beyond the press, freedom of expression for all citizens came under fire over the course of 2015, according to the rights organization. Akşener stated that blows to the right to express oneself are in large part due to the ambiguous framework of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), particularly Articles 299 and 125, which deal with “insulting the president” and “terrorism,” respectively.

Under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has been receiving growing criticism for moving away from democracy. Akşener explained that the state maintained a zero tolerance policy against any critıcism of the government throughout 2015.

Within a six-month time frame, "the minister of justice gave permission for 105 criminal prosecutions for insulting President Erdoğan, under Article 299 of the Penal Code. Eight people were remanded in pre-trial detention,” the reported stated.

Abolishment of independent judiciary

The deteriorating situation of the Turkish judiciary, which is criticized for its lack of independence, partisanship and turning into a government tool to punish its critics, also made its way into the AI's report.

"Politically motivated appointments and transfers of judges and prosecutors continued throughout the year, wreaking havoc on a judiciary already lacking independence and impartiality. Criminal Courts of Peace -- with jurisdiction over the conduct of criminal investigations, such as pre-charge detention and pre-trial detention decisions, seizure of property and appeals against these decisions -- came under increasing government control," the report said.

Since the Criminal Court of Peace or Penal Courts of Peace were established by the AK Party government in the summer of 2014 they have received substantial criticism for empowering the “judges of peace” who serve in those courts with powers such as the authority to issue search warrants, detentions and the seizure of property. The courts have faced allegations that they are instruments for the enforcement of the government's wishes by instigating arrests based on the headlines of pro-government newspapers.

Civilians affected by violence in SE

The ongoing clashes between the Turkish security forces and the youth wing of the PKK, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement(YDG-H), in the country's Southeast "took a particularly heavy toll on the lives of ordinary residents," according to the report.

Referring to local lawyers and activists in the region, AI said the mass deployment of security forces to the southeastern provinces in mid-December resulted in an intensification of clashes and the killings of scores of unarmed residents.

The AI report also noted that separate suicide bombings attributed to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targeting left-wing and pro-Kurdish activists and demonstrators killed 139 people.

In June 2015 four people were killed when explosions targeted a pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) rally days before the June election. In July 2015 a bomb killed 33 young activists in the southeastern city of Suruç as they made a press statement about their mission to deliver humanitarian aid to the neighboring, predominantly Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria. In October 2015 twin explosions in the capital of Ankara targeting a peace rally organized by trade unions, civil society organizations and left-wing parties killed 102 people.

Refugee problems persist

The AI report has highlighted that around 2.3 million registered Syrian refugees and 250,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries including Afghanistan and Iraq have been accommodated in Turkey.

It said while some 260,000 Syrian refugees were accommodated in well-resourced, government-run camps, most refugees and asylum-seekers outside camps received little or no assistance and were not granted the right to work.

"In many cases they struggled to survive, getting by through exploitative and underpaid irregular work and the charity of neighbors. Asylum applications for non-Syrians were rarely processed in practice," the report said.

Referring to an agreement signed by the AK Party government and the EU in October 2015 that aimed at preventing irregular migration from Turkey to the EU, the report said in September that at least 200 refugees -- mostly Syrian -- attempting to travel irregularly to Greece were kept incommunicado or even in secret detention at various locations in Turkey.

"Many were pressured into agreeing to ‘voluntarily' return to Syria and Iraq, in a flagrant breach of international law," added the report.

Published on Today's Zaman, 24 February 2016, Wednesday