In Turkey, the right to freedom of assembly and association is under constant attack, and human rights defenders are facing increasing pressure. In a three-part series, the latest report of which was published today, the FIDH-OMCT Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and their member organization Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları DernegiIHD) document and analyze how the government orchestrates the narrowing of civil space in Turkey.
The Turkish government’s intervention against civil society continues against the background of a broader decline in democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Turkey. Following the Gezi Park protests in 2013, the FIDH and its member organizations in Turkey, the IHD and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (Türkiye İnsan Hakları Vakfı, TIHV) documented in a 2014 report how the Turkish authorities systematically suppressed non-violent protests and disproportionate police force to diminish civil space. The 2016 coup attempt jeopardized further fundamental rights, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promising to ” clean the virus from all government institutions in response to this violent coup. During the two years of state of emergency that followed, human rights violations became widespread; Thousands of officials, including several human rights defenders, have been removed from their posts and face criminal charges, while dozens of NGOs and media institutions – particularly in the Kurdish region – have been shut down by emergency decrees.
The first report in this three-part series, published in July 2020, focuses on the right to freedom of assembly and documents how the state of emergency remains on the agenda in Turkey despite its official end in July 2018. According to studies conducted by TIHV, between 1 January 2019 and On 31 January 2020, the authorities issued at least 147 decisions in 25 cities to ban all gatherings and demonstrations for a period of 2 days to 395 days. Meetings and demonstrations in the city of Van have been banned since November 2016. When protesters defy the bans to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, they often face police brutality and violent proliferation. Women’s and environmental rights organizations as well as LGBTI + and labor rights activists are particularly targeted and prevented from exercising their freedom of assembly. These bans and the violent spread of peaceful protests are direct violations of freedom of assembly, but are only one of the mechanisms used by the government to weaken civil space.
Erdoğan’s repression of civil society also includes an arsenal of legislative amendments aimed at strengthening government oversight of civil society and restricting freedom of association, documented in the Observatory’s second report, published in May 2021. One of these laws, Act No. 7262, entered into force on 31 December 2020. It allows the Minister of the Interior to suspend employees and / or leaders of civil society organizations prosecuted for terrorism-related charges and increases the administrative fines that apply to organizations that collect donations via online platforms without prior approval from the authorities. While overburdening administrative and fiscal demands hamper the work of civil society actors, and complex bureaucratic demands allegedly used as a pretext to oppress civil society organizations, public resources are increasingly channeled into new NGOs organized by the government (GONGO). These organizations are presented as an alternative civil society that supports the actions of the government.
These measures, which undermine the right to freedom of assembly and association, are complemented by the use of legal and administrative harassment against human rights defenders. This tactic is the theme of the Observatory’s third and final report. After being acquitted of two charges against him, the co-president of IHD, Öztürk Türkdoğan, is still facing a charge in the criminal case, in which he allegedly insulted Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu through a public IHD statement criticizing threatening remarks from the minister. Sixteen members of the Migration Monitoring Association were arbitrarily arrested earlier this month (June 2022). Two associations – the Tarlabaşı Community Center and the We Will Stop Femicides platform – are subject to unfounded closure procedures. All these cases were brought after administrative audits against the associations, which show how administrative actions and sanctions are used to harass civil society and pave the way for legal harassment.
Judicial harassment in the form of arbitrary detention and detention, investigations, trials and judgments against defenders in return for their legitimate human rights work has continued since the state of emergency, violation of the right to defend human rights and has a cooling effect on civil society in general. The other co-president of IHD, Eren Keskin, is also a victim of harassment and was recently sentenced to six years and three months in prison for “belonging to an armed group”. Other human rights defenders, such as Osman Kavala, Firat Akdeniz and 46 participants in the peaceful Saturday Mothers / People guards, were recently jailed or arbitrarily arrested and detained. This harassment, accompanied by smear campaigns against defenders, is a tool of the Erdoğan regime to stigmatize civil society and human rights defenders in the public, against which human rights defenders have no effective remedy, given the judiciary’s lack of independence.
This in-depth documentation and analysis of threats to civil society and shrinking civil society in Turkey helps to formulate recommendations to the Turkish government and international actors for the purpose of expressing concerns, issues raised by civil society and human rights defenders in Turkey. International bodies may take measures, including by assessing the situation, conducting country visits to assess the impact of rights restrictions on the work of civil society groups, raising concerns and issuing recommendations to the Turkish Government through public declarations and through diplomatic channels, both bilaterally and in multilateral fora. to ensure that the fundamental rights of human rights defenders, freedom of assembly and association and the security of human rights defenders are finally respected.
The reports have been prepared under the auspices of the EU-funded program “Comprehensive Support to Human Rights Defenders in Turkey”. The program, led by a consortium of NGOs led by FIDH and including OMCT Europe, aims to support and strengthen the capacity of civil society and human rights defenders in Turkey, in particular by documenting the difficult situations they face.