Turkey’s human rights environment deteriorated in 2015, says HRW

Turkey’s human rights environment deteriorated in 2015, says HRW

Turkey’s human rights environment deteriorated in 2015, says HRW

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The environment for human rights in Turkey deteriorated in 2015 with the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process, a sharp escalation of violence in the country’s southeast and a crackdown on media and political opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Jan. 27.

Releasing its annual World Report for 2016, themed “‘Politics of Fear’ Threatens Rights,” the HRW said Turkey’s human rights record had worsened in 2015, citing the violence in the country’s southeast as a result of the ruined peace process and the pressure imposed on the media as the main causes. 

The 2016 report, which is 659 pages long, summarizes key human rights issues in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide.

The report said bringing a halt to the government-initiated, more than two-year-long Kurdish peace process with the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, in mid-2015 was accompanied by an increase in violent attacks, armed clashes and human rights abuses in the second half of the year. 

“The latter included violations of the right to life, arrests of non-violent protesters and activists on terrorism charges and ill-treatment of detainees,” the report said. 

Reminding that the country experienced two general elections in 2015 just five months apart, the HRW said the most serious escalation of violence followed the first general election in June, when an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) suicide bomber killed 33 people, mostly students and activists from across Turkey who were to join efforts to rebuild Kobane in Syria, in the southeastern district of Suruç. 

The PKK blamed Turkish authorities for the bombing, while local PKK associates killed two police officers in nearby Ceylanpınar. In response, the Turkish air force repeatedly bombed PKK camps in northern Iraq and later in Turkey. 

The report also touched upon the killing of Tahir Elçi, a human rights lawyer and head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association in the southeastern province, on Nov. 28, 2015.

Some of Diyarbakır’s districts came under curfew following the incident, including one in the Sur district which has continued for more than 50 days. 

‘Government-led restrictions on media freedom’

“Government-led restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey in 2015 went hand-in-hand with efforts to discredit the political opposition and prevent scrutiny of government policies in the run-up to the two general elections,” reads a part of the report’s section spared for freedom of expression, association and assembly. 

The HRW said the editor-in-chief of daily Cumhuriyet, Can Dündar, and the daily’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, were arrested pending trial in November last year, after the Istanbul prosecutor’s office in May launched a terrorism and espionage investigation into the newspaper for posting a video and news report showing trucks laden with weapons allegedly en route to Syria.

The raids and appointment of board of caretakers to TV channels and newspapers owned by the İpek-Koza Media Group, as well as the attacks on daily Hürriyet’s building is Istanbul and one of its columnists, were also mentioned by the report as incidents which recorded the deterioration of human rights in the country. 

“Journalists continued to be fired from mainstream press outlets in 2015 for critical reporting, commentary and tweets. Social media postings critical of the president and politicians by ordinary people also led to criminal defamation charges and convictions,” the HRW said. 

Treatment of alleged Gülenists also in report

The report noted prosecutions of journalists, judges, prosecutors and police officers for membership of the alleged “Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization” were ongoing at the time of writing, adding there was “no evidence to date that the Gülen movement has engaged in violence or other activities that could reasonably be described as terrorism.”

While the report praised Turkey for being generous in hosting a large number of Syrian refugees, it criticized the government for only granting Syrians temporary protection rather than refugee status, unlike asylum seekers of other nationalities.

The HRW said violence against women remained a significant concern in Turkey in 2015 despite the fact Turkey ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. 

Europe cracks down on basic freedoms

When looking at the world’s human rights record, the HRW said European governments have responded to fears of terrorism and an influx of Muslim refugees by cracking down on basic freedoms.

In a departure from previous years, the New York-based group’s annual report did not open with the latest news from active war zones, but instead focused on the knock-on effects of conflict.

“Fears of terror attacks and of the potential impact of refugee influx led to a visible scaling back of rights in Europe and other regions,” HRW director Kenneth Roth warned, while introducing the report.  

“In Europe and the United States, a polarizing us-versus-them rhetoric has moved from the political fringe to the mainstream,” he wrote. “Blatant Islamophobia and shameless demonizing of refugees have become the currency of an increasingly assertive politics of intolerance.” 

The report cites the example of France, where - in the aftermath of the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks on bars, a concert hall and a sports stadium in Paris - authorities have tightened emergency laws.

The crackdown in Europe has been mirrored in the United States by heightened campaign rhetoric from figures such as Donald Trump, the Republican White House hopeful who has proposed banning Muslims from entering America.

Scapegoating Muslims and refugees, the report argues, “hurts and alienates populations crucial to counterterrorism efforts.”

Refugee influx into Europe

In addition to jihadist attacks, Europe has faced the challenge of a stream of Muslim refugees fleeing conflict or persecution in the Middle East and North Africa.

This has stirred anti-immigration sentiment and fear of crime among the European population, particularly in the wake of reported New Year sex attacks by immigrant gangs in Germany.

But, according to the HRW, the right response to such inflows is not more repressive border and immigration enforcement, but a better controlled program of refugee resettlement.

“The effect of European policy so far has been to leave refugees with little choice but to risk their lives at sea for a chance at asylum,” Roth wrote.

Situation ‘worse than ever’ in Russia, China

In Russia and China, for example, the human rights situation is worse that it has been in any period since the end of the Cold War, the group said.

“The Kremlin has been crushing Russian civil society, one of the most important elements to have emerged from the demise of Soviet rule,” the report said.

“The new, poisonous atmosphere helped the Kremlin to divert attention as Russia’s economic woes deepened.” 

The report also covers forced child marriage in some developing countries.

This practice, which the report notes has declined in some territories, is again on the rise in some vulnerable populations, for example among Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan.