Last October Amnesty International released a report looking at the summer's Gezi Park protests, concluding the government's harsh response resulted in "gross human rights violations." Today, the organization released a followup report, one that looks at the situation in Turkey a year after the Gezi events. Like the first report, this one also finds much to criticize regarding the government's actions, suggesting its "approach to demonstrations is as abusive as ever while impunity for police violence is rampant."
To get a better sense of the report and its findings, I spoke today with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher, about some of the main points raised in the document. An edited version of our interview is below:
What led to Amnesty creating this report?
It was really to do a follow up on the last report. What we found in the first Gezi report, which covered the events of the protests themselves, was there was really unnecessary, abusive use of force by the police, not to disperse people but to directly injure and punish people for going on the streets. The government’s policy for people taking to the streets was extremely restrictive and very much about keeping people from taking to the streets in any way they can.
That was our starting point, really, and what we wanted to see is what happened in the year after the Gezi Park protests. What we were looking to see was if the government ended of abusive use of force and we wanted to see, especially, if justice was done for those who were injured during the protests and if there was a respect for the right for peaceful protest. Unfortunately, what we have seen is just the opposite. The abusive use of force that existed during the Gezi park protest still exists today. In fact, it may have deepened.
The message now is clear: the government will do anything possible to keep people from taking to the streets and demonstrating. We are seeing near total impunity for police abuses. The authorities have shown a complete lack of interest in bringing abuses to justice.
What would you describe as the strategy behind the government’s approach?
Unfortunately, it’s part of a broader picture where all forms of dissent are not tolerated by the authorities. Our report focused on one particular aspect of that, and that is the intolerance of dissent as expressed through street protests. What we’ve seen in the year post Gezi are attacks by the government on social media, the completely unjustifiable closure of Twitter and YouTube, the prosecution of social media users for very standard tweets they sent out and for sharing their opinion. It’s really the same thing we are seeing over and over again.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is central to this. Certainly in the cases we are seeing connected with the Gezi protests, the Justice and Development Party was a party to the cases or the Prime Minister is a complainant. It’s very clear the Prime Minister himself takes a very hard line on dissent and uses all his influence to have those who criticize him punished through the courts.
Based on the report’s findings, how would you describe the Turkish government’s attitude regarding protests and demonstrations in the wake of Gezi?
I think it would be impossible to say there has been an improvement whatsoever. I think we can actually say there has been a deepening of the problem. When we say the government has to learn the lessons of Gezi, they have learned lessons, but probably not the ones we wanted them to learn. The government currently doesn’t appear to have any intention of recognizing the right to peaceful protests as set out in Turkey’s constitution and international treaties that Turkey is a party to.
One thing we saw during the Gezi one year anniversary protests is that there were hundreds of plainclothes policeman deployed with nothing more to identify them than matching caps and batons. This is something that happened during the Gezi park protests to a limited extent and it was something that led to huge abuses. A Ministry of Interior directive issued after Gezi said policemen from now one will have to have some way to identify them as police. If that’s the case, how can hundreds and even more be in completely plain cloths nearly a year later? Certainly this is not a way to police demonstrations in a way that respects international human rights principles.
What are your expectations on these issues as you look ahead?
There are three things we want to see. First is an independent police investigation mechanism. Second is that justice is brought to those who were injured in the Gezi protests. Thirdly and most importantly, we need to see a change in attitude by the authorities towards dissenting options. In the short term, the government doesn’t seem to be listening and to be realistic, the period leading up to the presidential election in August will be a difficult one in terms of protests being allowed.
But the in the long term the trajectory of Turkey is not a bad one. If we look at the abuses today they are not of the same gravity as the 1990’s, when torture was regularly used and Turkey had one of the highest number in the world of disappeared people. What we saw in Gezi was thousands, perhaps millions, of people, protesting. If we look at Europe as a whole or even globally, the amount of people taking part in these protest and calling for human rights to be respected shows there’s a very large segment of society calling for democratic standards and for human rights to be respected.
In the long term this is a very positive thing for the country and I don’t think those people are going to lose out in the long run. I think the future vision that they have for the country, irrespective of which political party they vote for, that vision for human rights and respecting democracy based on rule of law, is a vision that will win out at the end, even though it looks quite distant today.