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.
Although Turkey's short-lived ban on Twitter is now over, that doesn't mean the service's trials and tribulations in Turkey are finished.
After the Constitutional Court in Ankara issued a ruling on April 2 calling for the block on Twitter to be lifted on the grounds that it violated Turkish citizens' freedom of expression, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted angrily. "I don't find it right and patriotic that the Constitutional Court has adopted such a decision," Erdogan said.
"While they are protecting an American company, our national and moral values are being disregarded."
But Turkey's Twitter-related troubles go deeper than just Erdogan's disdain for the social media platform. More ominously, there are currently several court cases taking place in Turkey that target Twitter users, accusing them of a range of crimes.
In Izmir, 29 defendants recently went on trial, accused of a range of "crimes" connected with last summer's Gezi Park protests. Reports the German press agency dpa:
Rights activists say the defendants, mostly youths, shared information on social media platforms about the mass demonstrations that started in Istanbul and spread nationwide, but none of them broke the law.
"These types of tweets must be protected by the constitution and actually they are protected," Duygucan Yazici, one of the defence lawyers, told dpa. "These are political charges."
The massive Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, which helped send a large number of high-profile Turks (numerous generals among them) to jail on charges of planning a coup, were hailed by many as an important step in finally confronting the troubling history of Turkey's "Deep State" and in finally breaking the military's unhealthy hold on political life.
Those were certainly noble objectives, but from the beginning of those cases there were those who asked if the evidence in the trials really held up. Already in 2009, analyst Gareth Jenkins issued a highly critical report about the Ergenkon case, writing: "Despite its extraordinary length, the indictment produced no evidence that the Ergenekon organization it described even existed, much less that the accused were all members and engaged in a coordinated terrorist campaign to overthrow the government."
Economist and blogger Dani Rodrik (whose father-in-law was one of the generals caught up in the Balyoz (or "Sledgehammer") investigation) was also an early and constant critic of the cases and Istanbul-based journalist Alexander Christie-Miller produced some very good pieces noting the profound problems with the evidence used in the trials (take a look at this article in The Times (London) from 2011).
Back in the summer of 2010, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies bombarded the country with ads in support of a referendum on a constitutional amendment that the government billed as one that would create a more independent judiciary, part of what was supposed to be a larger effort at creating a new constitutional order that would emphasize the rights of the individual over the Turkish state's traditional impulse to protect itself.
The referendum succeeded and the amendment was made into law, but Turkey's constitutional reform drive has since then faltered. So much so that on Feb. 15 the AKP-dominated parliament approved a new law that essentially undoes the changes approved by the 2010 referendum. In a heated debate that ultimately ended with members of the AKP and the opposition coming to blows, the government succeeded in passing a bill gives it far greater control over judges and prosecutors and how they are appointed, and which has led to increased concerns over the growing lack of separation of powers in Turkey. "Most of the steps taken in the direction of judicial independence with the 2010 referendum are being taken back with this law," wrote veteran columnist Taha Akyol wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.
Thanks to the continuing domestic strife created by the massive ongoing graft probe in Turkey, the country is about to have what may be the world's most highly-trained traffic police force. The reason? As the corruption investigation continues, targeting current officials, former ministers, their relatives and businessmen close to the ruling Justice and Development Party -- the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting back with a wholesale reassignment of police chiefs, many of them being demoted to work in traffic divisions and in other less desirable places.
The police purge has been striking: yesterday, in Ankara alone, some 350 police chiefs and officers were reassigned, many of them from high positions in departments investigating terrorism, corruption and organized crime. Since the large corruption case started last month, close to 1,700 police commanders all around Turkey have been either fired or reassigned.
For months now, Turkish officials had been promising they would soon unveil a significant new democratization package, building it up with the kind of hype reserved for Hollywood summer blockbusters. The package, meant to move Turkey further down the democratic road and restore the ruling Justice and Development Party's reformist image after the summer's bruising Gezi Park events, was finally released yesterday, though -- at first blush -- it appears to have failed to live up to the hype, as if it had been cobbled together from outtakes and recycled footage.
The early reviews of the government's package, presented in Ankara by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, certainly have been mostly neutral to negative. "Package proves disappointing for non-Muslim communities" and "Turkey's Alevis disheartened by democratization package" were two headlines found on the Today's Zaman website yesterday. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, also expressed disappointment with proposed reforms. "This is not a democratization package but an election package,” said Gultan Kisanak, one of the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party.
After a lengthy five-year trial, a Turkish court today delivered its verdict in the now notorious “Ergenekon” case, in which several hundred were accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But while the court may have made its decision, the case leaves behind many unanswered questions about the fairness of the trial and the sentences handed down, as well as about whether the proceedings were able to succeed in fulfilling one of the original promises of the Ergenekon case: to shed light on some of the dark chapters of Turkey’s recent history.
At the heart of the trial was the discovery in 2007 of a stash of hand grenades found hidden in the home of a retired military officer in Istanbul’s Umraniye neighborhood. From there, Ergenekon grew into a sprawling and sometimes bizarre case that involved 275 defendants, many of them pillars of Turkey’s secular establishment, and 23 different indictments, each more complex than the other. What kept it all together was the state’s contention that there existed a widespread ultranationalist plot to bring the government down, through a combination of destabilizing violent attacks, the spreading of anti-government propaganda and other means (one indictment suggested investigators had found evidence that some of the defendants had drawn up plans to manufacture and sell chemical and biological weapons, using the proceeds to bankroll their other activities).
Turkish classical musician Fazil Say is best known for his piano work, but it's the actions he took using a computer keyboard that have thrust him into the limelight in an unexpected -- and disturbing -- way.
Yesterday, Say -- who has received rave reviews for his playing and has performed in concert halls around the world -- was given by an Istanbul court a suspended 10-month prison sentence for insulting Islam and offending Muslims -- in Twitter posts. Although he was spared the indignity of being sent to jail, Say could find himself locked up if he is convicted of similar offenses during the next five years.
The offending tweets? In one, Say forwarded an excerpt from an 11-th century poem written by the famed Omar Khayyam. “You say that the rivers flow with wine, is heaven a tavern? You say that you will give every believer two very beautiful women, is heaven a brothel?” the poem says. In another tweet, the pianist -- a self-declared atheist -- suggests the rapid call to prayer he heard coming from a nearby Istanbul mosque might have been given by a muezzin eager to get his work done and head out for a drink.
Looking at the case in a piece for the Al-Monitor website, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a well-known civil rights lawyer in Turkey, suggests Say's conviction is part of a disturbing trend in Turkey regarding the prosecution of those deemed to have insulted religion or Islam. From Cengiz's article:
Human Rights Watch has just released its annual World Report and its chapter on Turkey contains some very strong criticism of Ankara's efforts at human rights reform. “Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy, incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW's senior researcher in Turkey. “If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step,” she said. “Turkey needs to make human rights a priority in its approach to all of its citizens.”
In Turkey, the cross-party work on a new constitution during 2012 was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But tight government control of appointments to the national human rights institution created in March and the ombudsman office established in June undermined confidence in potentially important oversight mechanisms. There are serious concerns about how independent or effective either institution will be in practice.
Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of expression are evident both in its laws and in the pattern of prosecutions and convictions under these laws, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial reform packages passed by the parliament, most recently in June, suspended prosecutions and convictions for some speech offenses, amended penalties for various terrorism laws, and attempted to curb excessive detention on remand, but have not yet had a significant impact. Politicians’ intolerance of dissenting voices – extending as far as criticizing television soap operas – and their willingness to sue for defamation perpetuates a chilling climate for free speech.
Although it's still quite early to know which way Turkey's new peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) will go, this week saw some very encouraging signs coming out of Ankara.
Late Thursday, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that will allow defendants to use Kurdish in court, a long-standing demand put forward by Kurdish activists and politicians. Up until now, Turkish courts have regularly refused to allow Kurdish defendants to use the language during proceedings.
Also yesterday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet, most significantly replacing the hawkish Interior Minister Naim Sahin with Muammer Guler, a former governor of Istanbul who originally hails from southeast Turkey. Sahin, an old school nationalist, had managed to enrage Kurds on numerous occasions, especially in the wake of the 2011 Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish villagers were killed in an errant military operation. At the time, Sahin dismissed the killed villagers as "extras" in a PKK operation and said there was no need for Turkey to apologize for the incident.