October 18, 2015

HRW’s Sinclair-Webb: Will the EU soft-pedal on Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record?

This week's guest for Monday Talk has said that European Union officials should not play Turkey's deteriorating human rights record down in order to bring the migrant exodus to Europe under control as Turkish and EU officials have yet to finalize the terms of an action plan that aims at solving the refugee crisis.

“What the EU member states have to remember is that erosion of rule of law and deep setbacks for democracy in Turkey are going to affect the refugees as well,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb*, senior Turkey researcher with Human Rights Watch, headquartered in New York.

“It is quite wrong for Europe to depend upon Turkey to hold millions of asylum seekers, while EU member states shirk their own responsibility to offer access to asylum and resettlement. It is also important to ask how in practice Turkey will stop people from travelling across the Aegean Sea -- what measures Turkey will take,” she said, adding, “What the EU member states have to remember is that erosion of rule of law and deep setbacks for democracy in Turkey are going to affect the refugees as well.”

Answering our questions, Sinclair-Webb elaborated on the issues as Turkey struggles with the deadliest terror attack in its history, killing 102 people who gathered near Ankara's central train station ahead of a peace rally on Oct. 10.

Following the suicide bombings, the Ankara police chief, intelligence unit head and security unit head were sacked as observers point to serious negligence on the part of the government leading up to the attack. How do you evaluate the dismissal of these police chiefs?

The decision to fire those key people only came after there was criticism over no ministers resigning. Most surprising was the interior minister's immediate rejection of any suggestion that there had been a security or intelligence failure. And clearly, as it turned out there was a failure since you didn't act upon the intelligence you had that could have prevented the bombing. Dismissing suggestions of any failure by the state is the common default position of public officials and politicians in Turkey. What is lacking is a proper process of inquiry, public inquiry into an incident. Having no accountability is the broader problem at the heart of this; we saw that in the Diyarbakır bombing, the Suruç bombing. Where are those investigations going? There is no public information about them. Of course, removing a few police and intelligence chiefs in Ankara doesn't mean there is a proper investigation. What you need to do is to fully investigate wherever it takes you.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said they have a list of potential suicide bombers, but they cannot make arrests before those people commit crimes since “Turkey is a democratic country.”

It seems the prime minister has fallen into a terrible trap by saying this because a lot of people in this country get arrested for tweeting, supposedly insulting the president, and those sorts of incidents are not crimes. You arrest those people, but you can't track down people who might be preparing to kill hundreds of people. It shows a complete lack of awareness of how things are playing out in this country.

One other development has been that one of the Ankara bombers might be the brother of the Suruç bomber. If that is true, isn't that scandalous?

It is, but you can't automatically think that family members of a bomber are all going to be bombers and criminals as well. We need caution here. The irony is that this is a very security-minded state talking all the time about maintaining public order, but when it comes to it, they can't protect people at all. There are so many security measures applied against the wrong people.

“They want to muzzle public discussion of an investigation'

What is your comment on the broadcast ban on the Ankara bombing investigation?

So far it seems to be an ineffective broadcast ban and the press is not really adhering to it, but it is of course extremely concerning to impose such a ban. The public has an interest in hearing about the news on this issue; there is no way you can ban reporting on something of such huge significance.

There is also the confidentiality of the investigation…

On any investigation that the government regards as sensitive, prosecutors impose secrecy orders. Then the lawyers, victims, interested parties and defendants themselves can get very little information about the charges and the kind of evidence against them. This kind of blanket of secrecy over an investigation is very inhibiting to a proper process of justice and a proper sense of accountability in a democracy, so we are against these secrecy orders unless there are very compelling reasons and strong grounds for them. I fear that in Turkey they impose a secrecy order to cover up inactivity, lack of progress in an investigation or because they don't want anybody to find out what they are doing, whether they do it right and how far it's going. They also want to muzzle public discussion of an investigation.

Can you access the information that you need for your reports?

We try to, but it's hard. For example, it's very difficult to get information on the reasoning behind decisions to put people in pretrial detention when the evidence is withheld and the person faces maximum charges like attempting to overthrow the state or terrorist organization membership. For example, there are now a lot of Kurdish activists again in detention -- the Peoples' Democratic Party [HDP] estimates that more than 2,000 party activists and officials have been detained over less than three months and that more than 500 of them are in pre-trial detention. What are the grounds for those detentions? What criminal activities are they alleged to have committed?

Another example is the judges and prosecutors jailed for alleged connections with the so-called “Fethullah Gülen terrorist organization.” Where's the evidence that they were involved in violent activities or plotting to bring down the state rather than just discharging their professional duties as judges and prosecutors and making decisions which could anyway be challenged through judicial review? We have to conclude on the basis of a lack of compelling grounds to imprison people that when it comes to these political cases pre-trial detention in Turkey is a form of summary punishment, a punishment upfront for people that the government doesn't agree with or who it regards as posing a threat.

‘Refugees look for a safe country'

Chief Editor of Today's Zaman Bülent Keneş was questioned in the anti-terrorism branch of the court, even though his “crime” was to insult the president. He is not the first person to face this “crime.” Many critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, including ordinary citizens, have been facing this charge. Your comment?

A few months ago, we issued a statement after we saw an emerging trend of putting people into jail for short periods for criticizing the president -- under Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). We saw this summary punishment style applied first to political activists from the Haziran Movement. It also applies to ordinary people who do social media postings, even a lawyer who got into an argument during an interview at the Justice Ministry! Then, we thought maybe we can stop this trend because it is so scandalous, but we've seen since then that it has become an entrenched pattern. Bülent Keneş has been the latest victim of that nonsensical charge [criticizing the president] because of some of his tweets. President Erdoğan gets a great reception in Brussels to discuss the refugee issue, and back home he is overseeing a system where people are locked up for criticizing him. Because the EU is so concerned about the refugee crisis and so willing to outsource it to the neighboring countries to the EU, I have a real concern that the EU itself and European governments will soft-pedal on Turkey's deteriorating human rights record. What the EU member states have to remember is that erosion of rule of law and deep setbacks for democracy in Turkey are going to affect the refugees as well. Refugees look for a safe country.

Regarding government pressure on the media, how about the removal of the TV channels Bugün TV, Kanaltürk, Shaber and Samanyolu from Digital satellite platform Digitürk, which joined two other similar platforms that previously banned critical media, weeks ahead of the Nov. 1 election?

When you restrict media, you restrict scrutiny of power. About 4 million households do not now have a chance to see any dissenting TV broadcast. They are not going to come across any opinion that does not suit Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the pre-election period. TV news is essential because that's where most people learn about what's going on. During the curfews in the Southeast, nine days in Cizre, media coverage of the curfews was so diminished, you could only find information in the Kurdish press; it was as if it was happening on the other side of the planet. That's an incredibly worrying development. Institutional suppression of TV channels is even more worrying than putting individual people, journalists in prison.

‘It's the worst period that I've seen in Turkey'

A year ago you wrote a report on Turkey, titled “Turkey's Human Rights Rollback.” Did you predict such a low point?

It's the worst period that I've seen in Turkey during the time I've worked on Turkey's human rights which is since the beginning of 2003. The country has a polarized but dynamic society. I always think that the society is ahead of the political leaders who opt for a polarizing discourse. It is very worrying that there is no feeling of collective mourning, for example, for the Ankara bombing, but one shouldn't underestimate the negative impact of the polarizing messages from the government after the bombing. And let's not forget that just a few months ago large elements of the society were supportive of the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) Kurdish peace process and there was acceptance of the need for reconciliation.

I doubt many people want a return to war. I believe that an emerging younger generation will not accept the current level of repressive policies, restrictiveness and cover-up. In the longer run, people won't be able to benefit from clientelism and patronage networks in the way they are benefiting from them now. There are lots of positive things about young people's interest in democracy in Turkey. EU officials sometimes ask if people in Turkey are content with what they have and whether there is consent for authoritarianism. Turkey is often compared with Russia, etc., but the society is so diverse and so much more dynamic. There is a big opposition, although the media is muzzled. You have an enormous discussion on issues through social media, despite the prosecutions for tweets, and I doubt that will change.

‘We've seen a huge clampdown on the right to association'

When you wrote the Turkey report a year ago there was a Kurdish peace process, and now there is not. What do you see when you look at the events since the June 7 election and the collapse of the peace process?

Looking at the sequence of events after the June 7 election, especially after the Suruç bombing, the rapid breakdown of the process and resumption of hostilities are extremely dismaying and demonstrate the willingness of the government and the president to opt for a military approach once more. I'd hope that the government would respond to the Kurdistan Workers' Party's [PKK] announcement on Oct. 10 to end hostilities during the pre-election period, but there are no signs of a response yet.

We are talking about hundreds of deaths on all sides over less than three months, with many deaths of civilians including young children. There is an urgent need for the resumption of the peace process. Having military operations against towns in the Southeast, putting towns under curfews, sending tanks in did not work for 30 years and the government recognized that in the past. Why is it going back to that? It is concerning to see the PKK-controlled Patriotic Democratic Youth Movement [YDGH] setting up barricades and digging trenches in towns, and that should also cease. It is very concerning that the government and the PKK have shown willingness to take the war to the cities, where the impact on the civilian population will be greatest.

Back to the report we issued a year ago, when it comes to freedom of assembly and association, the restrictions have become much greater since that report. We've seen a huge clampdown on the right to association -- for alleged Gülen supporters now as well as for Kurdish and leftist political activists -- and police ill-treatment and killings of civilians are on the rise. We have documented allegations of serious ill-treatment in southeastern towns like Silopi and many cases of civilians shot dead by police during the curfews. The lack of media scrutiny on that is very worrying.

There is no transparency about the use of special force units. We also have directives from the government allowing gendarmerie intervention to stop or curb social incidents, demonstrations. In addition, democratically elected Peoples' Democratic Party [HDP] and Democratic Regions Party [DBP] mayors in the Southeast are once again being put in pre-trial detention. The resumption of hostilities in the Southeast, emergency measures, special security zones and ill-treatment should be of great concern to the EU and US in the context of their negotiations with Turkey over the refugee issue and over Syria.

‘Even more worrying than corruption is willingness to bring criminal justice system to its knees'

Do you have a note on the massive corruption issue?

On the corruption issue, it is incredibly dismaying to see the lengths that [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the government have been prepared to go to cover up the evidence. In a way, even more worrying than the corruption itself is the willingness to bring the whole criminal justice system to its knees and completely muzzle the media. The justice system in Turkey has always been very politicized. You cannot have a justice system with factions in it, but the direction of the government is taking it in -- for example, the creation of special criminal judges of the peace expected to pass decisions that the government desires in matters that are critical to the government -- sets the system back years.

Leaving aside political cases, what international company would want to have a court case in Turkey where judges and prosecutors can be put in jail because of their decisions? Government control of the judiciary has an impact on commercial law as well as criminal law. Any criticism of government control of the judiciary brings the accusation that you are a supporter of the “parallel state,” but you should not have to be a supporter of the Hizmet or Gülen movement to be worried! There are tough times ahead for Turkey, and it's unclear that the climate is going to improve.

‘Wrong for Europe to depend upon Turkey to hold millions of asylum seekers

Can Turkey be Europe's gatekeeper on the refugee issue?

Turkey does not have a functioning asylum system; it has a geographical limitation on refugee convention which means that it does not accept people coming from countries to the south or east of Turkey. Turkey has improved its system of processing and is generously hosting over 2 million refugees -- but refugees do not have legal rights; Syrians are offered only temporary protection. So it is quite wrong for Europe to depend upon Turkey to hold millions of asylum seekers, while EU member states shirk their own responsibility to offer access to asylum and resettlement. It is also important to ask how in practice Turkey will stop people from travelling across the Aegean Sea; what measures will Turkey take?

These are concerning questions. What happens if Turkey treats refugees as it treats its own population, if it opts for arbitrary arrests and imposes disproportionate security measures such as prolonged administrative detention that do not uphold public security but are simply repressive in nature? Why should over 2 million refugees fare so much better than everyone else in the country? It's the same country where there is a rollback on human rights and democracy; and there are fundamental problems with the criminal justice system, an intolerance of any scrutiny of government policy. So would Turkey want its future refugee policy and treatment of refugees scrutinized, either? These are the kind of alarm bells that should be ringing for the EU.

* PROFILE: Since 2007, Emma Sinclair-Webb has been a senior Turkey researcher with Human Rights Watch, whose headquarters are in New York. She has worked on issues including police violence, accountability for enforced disappearances and killings by state perpetrators, the misuse of terrorism laws and arbitrary detention. She was a researcher on Turkey for Amnesty International from 2003-2007 and previously worked in publishing as a commissioning editor on books on history, culture and politics in the Middle East and southeast Europe.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 18 October 2015, Sunday