Will Balbay’s release help close freedom deficit in Turkey?

Will Balbay’s release help close freedom deficit in Turkey?

Daily Cumhuriyet columnist and lawmaker from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Mustafa Balbay, was released from prison on Monday, after nearly five years arrested in one of the worst cases of Turkey’s long detention problem.

Immediately after his release, he took his parliamentary oath on Tuesday, which allows him to participate in the legislative works of Parliament. It was a very good coincidence for him to take the oath on Human Rights Day, pushing all of us to think about the state of human rights and democracy in Turkey. Here are snapshots from the annual report jointly prepared and announced on Tuesday by the Human Rights Association (IHD) and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV):

The right to life: The abuse of administrative power by law enforcement bodies reached its peak during the Gezi protests. Since Jan. 1, 2013, a total of 25 persons have been killed by security forces and 26 have been injured. (Six civilians and one policeman were killed over the course of the Gezi protests in June.) Twenty-five inmates have lost their lives in prisons, while 52 soldiers committed suicide over the last year. Turkey’s misguided Syria policies claimed the lives of 71 Turkish citizens in the same period.

Torture and maltreatment: The worst cases of torture and maltreatment were observed during the Gezi protests, with security forces systematically using disproportionate force against peaceful demonstrators. The government and the judiciary’s unwillingness to seriously probe breaches of laws by the security forces, as seen in the cases of the deaths of Ethem Sarısülük, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş and Ali İsmail Korkmaz, make the situation even worse.

The Kurdish question: The year 2013 has witnessed serious initiatives for a peaceful and democratic settlement of the Kurdish issue, and the fact that nobody has been killed since Jan. 18 boosted hopes for peace. However, structural legal amendments to secure the use of mother tongue have not been realized and the issue is still being used as a political tool.

Freedom of thought, expression and faith: Violations of freedom of thought and expression throughout the Gezi protests and beyond prove that freedom of speech and the right to assembly should be assessed together. The government has pressed the media to impose self-censorship and took restrictive measures against reporters and photographers in a bid to cloud protests and police brutality. Many journalists, columnists, and human rights activists have been prosecuted and many magazines and books have been confiscated. There has been no decrease in the number of journalists behind bars. The rightful demands of the Alevi people have not been met either. The Turkish Penal Code still includes many articles restricting freedom of expression. Some 35,000 websites are still banned.

The right to assemble and demonstrate: The right to assemble and demonstrate was regularly violated in 2013, as seen in the May Day demonstrations and throughout the Gezi uprising. The police’s interventions in peaceful demonstrations using water canon, plastic bullets and tear gas have shown a considerable rise in 2013. Nine civilians were killed due to police interventions in demonstrations as of Nov. 30. As of Aug. 1, 8,163 people injured or affected by chemical gas have been hospitalized, according to figures from the Turkish Doctors’ Union (TTB).

In the same period, 6,447 people (4,000 of them during the Gezi protests) have been detained and 217 of them have been imprisoned. They have been charged with being a member of an illegal organization, spurring people to revolt, or raiding a mosque. Prosecutors demand the conviction of about 1,204 people through 30 different indictments.

Economy and work life: The number of workers who are members of a union is around only one million, while the total workforce is more than 11 million. Workers’ right to work under safe conditions is hugely violated due to poor implementation and inspection of work safety rules. Turkey has the highest global figure in work accidents, with 1,145 workers killed over the first 11 months of 2013.

The right to the environment: Although Turkey is part of many international conventions for the protection of the environment, and although its Constitution stipulates the right to live in a healthy environment for its citizens, conditions for a healthy and comfortable environment have not been provided for them. The living spaces of Turkey are under constant threat due to the construction of hydroelectric and nuclear plants, which risk natural and historical heritage for ambition and more profit.
Gender and sexual orientation discrimination: Discrimination against women and discrimination based on sexual orientation is widely observed in Turkey. Its legal system still includes discriminative approaches against women and promotes male domination. Violence against women is introducing itself almost every day in different forms. In the first nine months of 2013, 199 women were killed and 182 were injured. Some 557 women have been subjected to men violence. LGBT individuals are subjected to serious discrimination, violence and insults. At least four LGBT individuals have been killed and nine injured as a result of hate crimes.

The list could be expanded with other forms of human rights violations, but the space of this column is limited. Although Turkey is not the old Turkey and has shown a good improvement in breaking so many taboos in the last decade - as senior government officials recall on a daily basis - there is not sufficient evidence to convince genuine democrats that the new Turkey will be more democratic and its citizens will be freer. The government’s growing tendency of distancing itself from universal democratic norms and adopting a more authoritarian rule will only weaken Turkey and will break hopes for a better future. It’s our wish that Balbay’s release will be the beginning of a new era for Turkey to start to close it democratic deficit.