Turkey: Women’s Rights Defenders in the Crosshairs

Press release
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(c) DHA

Paris-Geneva-Dublin – December 20, 2019 – The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), along with partner organisation Front Line Defenders, express their utmost concern over the increasing harassment and stigmatisation of women’s rights defenders in Turkey.

On November 25, 2019, hundreds of women gathered in Istiklal Street in Istanbul, under heavy police presence, to march on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Although the demonstration was initially banned by the District Governorate of Beyoglu, following the meetings between the Istanbul 25 November Women Platform and the District Governorate, the demonstration was eventually authorised at Tunel Square, at the end of Istiklal Street. Around 7:00 PM, the protesters gathered in the Square while Istiklal Street was blocked by the police 140 metres down the square, preventing protesters from walking down the street. Following a press statement, and as the crowd was preparing to leave the area, the police attacked the peaceful protesters with tear gas and plastic bullets. The Police Directorate stated in its press release that “there was a group of some 50 extremist and LGBTI people in the crowd, who refused to leave the area in defiance of police orders and who pushed the police barricade”. The statement also added that “the group was dispersed by shooting tear gas towards the ground, which” - according to the authorities - “was a proportionate intervention”, and that “no one was taken into custody”. The Ministry of Interior Affairs also denied the accusations of police violence against women protesters.

On December 8, 2019, a group of women gathered in Kadikoy, Istanbul for a remake of the dance performance “A Rapist in Your Path”, staged by the Chilean group Las Tesis to protest violence against women. At this occasion too, the police used force to disperse the crowd on the grounds that the demonstration was “illegal” and that the lyrics “the rapist is you, the murderer is you, the police, the judges, the state, the president” constituted a crime. Six women’s rights defenders were taken into police custody and released the following day on probation. Two of them reported bruises as a consequence of alleged excessive use of force by the police while being taken into custody. All six faced the accusations of “defamation of the Turkish Republic and its institutions”, “insulting the President” and “violating the Law on Public Assemblies and Demonstrations”. On 16 December, after contesting the decision of conditional release, women gathered in front of the Anadolu Courthouse for a press statement, but they were again prevented from doing so by the police.

Similar demonstrations have since taken place in Ankara, Izmir and other parts of Istanbul. On December 12, 2019, women who gathered in Ankara to perform “A Rapist in Your Path” were dispersed by the police, and nine women and a journalist were taken into police custody. All nine were individually fined TRY 320 (approximately EUR 50) pursuant to the Misdemeanour Law. Additionally, on December 14, 2019, women deputies from the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP) organised a performance in the National Assembly to show solidarity with the women’s rights defenders who were targeted because of the performance. The Ministry of Interior Affairs criticised the deputies saying that it is not necessary to accuse the police, the judges, the state, the president of being “rapist(s)” and “murderer(s)”. Finally, on December 16, 2019, an investigation was launched against approximately 20 women, who participated in a performance on December 15 in Izmir, on the grounds of “defamation of the Turkish Republic and its institutions” and “violating the Law on Public Assemblies and Demonstrations”. Within the scope of this investigation, 20 women were taken into police custody and released after their testimony was taken.

In addition to the use of force by the police against peaceful protesters, women’s rights defenders and organisations also face other types of harassment. In November 2019, the Antakya Purple Solidarity Women’s Association (Antakya Mor Dayanışma Kadın Derneği), a women’s rights organisation founded in Antakya in 2014 which advocates against gender-based violence, organises awareness-raising events, and follows gender-based violence cases, was subjected to a TRY 51,168 fine (approximately EUR 7,730) for allegedly “organising trainings without permission”. Subsequently, their premises were sealed without any notice on this particular measure. Previously, in August 2019, officials from the District Directorate of National Education accompanied by the police had visited the organisation’s premises and taken pictures of the voluntary activities taking place in their premises, without a warrant. The women and their children, taking part in the activities, were asked questions on whether they made any payments to the organisation. Women’s rights defenders are concerned that the police’s presence in their building and their harassment was mainly aimed at stigmatising them in the eyes of the community, which they work in close contact with, and obstructing their work. The Association filed a lawsuit to challenge the administrative fine, and the case is pending.

These episodes add to previous instances where the police reportedly used force against women’s rights defenders, e.g. during the peaceful demonstrations in Istanbul on March 8, 2019, International Women’s Day, and November 25, 2018, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. More broadly, since the state of emergency was declared following the failed coup in July 2016, attacks on women human rights defenders and women’s rights organisations have gained momentum. Several women’s rights associations have been closed down by emergency decrees, particularly the ones led by Kurdish women in the South East of Turkey, and their assets confiscated. In addition, the trustees appointed by the central government to the South Eastern municipalities held by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi – HDP), shut down many women consultancy centres in those municipalities. Today, many women human rights defenders, journalists, academics and elected representatives in Turkey still remain in detention pending trial and/or face judicial harassment. In November 2019 alone, at least three women journalists were arrested, including Mss. Ruken Demir and Sadiye Eser from Mezopotamya News Agency, as well as Melike Aydın from Jinnews.

Our organisations are deeply concerned about the ongoing harassment and stigmatisation of women’s rights defenders in Turkey, which takes place against the backdrop of a serious deterioration of the rule of law in the country in recent years and an increasingly shrinking space for civil society.

We urge the Government of Turkey to take the necessary steps to address the systematic violations of women’s rights in Turkey. We emphasise that women’s rights defenders are key actors for a democratic and inclusive debate on women’s rights, and that they must be included in the dialogue. We call on the Government of Turkey to refrain from criminalising, or otherwise obstructing the work of women’s rights defenders. We also call upon the same authorities to refrain from suppressing free speech, including when this is directed at expressing legitimate criticism of governmental institutions, and to recognise and take their demands into account, including on the effective implementation of the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

We also urge the Government of Turkey to respect the right to freedom of assembly and association as well as freedom of expression and media freedom, which are protected both by the Constitution of Turkey and international instruments to which Turkey is a party, including the European Convention of Human Rights. We more generally call upon the Turkish authorities to ensure a conducive environment for human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders, in Turkey, and to recognise their fundamental role of watchdog in a democratic society.

We more generally urge the international community to take a firm stance against the ongoing deterioration of the rule of law and human rights, including women’s rights, and a shrinking civic space in Turkey and to condemn any attack against human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders, in their diplomatic relations with the Turkish government at both the bilateral level and in multilateral fora.

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