Turkey: Civic space threatened as government continues to attack fundamental rights

Yıldız Tar/Kaos GL

In Turkey, the rights to freedom of assembly and association are under constant attack and human rights defenders face increasing pressure. In a three-part series, of which the last report was released on 24 June 2022, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights-FIDH and the World Organisation agasint Torture-OMCT) and their member organisation Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği, IHD) document and analyse how the government orchestrates the shrinking of civic space in Turkey.

The Turkish government’s crackdown against civil society continues against the backdrop of a broader decline in democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Turkey. Following the 2013 Gezi Park protests, FIDH and its member organisations in Turkey, IHD and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (Türkiye İnsan Hakları Vakfı, TIHV), documented in a 2014 report how Turkish authorities used the systematic repression of non-violent demonstrations and disproportionate police force to diminish civic space. The 2016 coup attempt further jeopardised fundamental rights as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised to “cleanse the virus from all state institutions” in response to the violent coup. During the two-year state of emergency that followed, human rights violations became widespread; thousands of public servants, including several human rights defenders, were dismissed from public duty and faced criminal charges, while tens of NGOs and media institutions – particularly in the Kurdish region – were shut down by emergency decrees.

A Perpetual Emergency: Attacks on Freedom of Assembly in Turkey and Repercussions for Civil Society

The first report of this three-part series, published in July 2020, focuses on the right to freedom of assembly and documents how the state of emergency remains entrenched in Turkey, despite officially ending in July 2018. According to research by TIHV, between 1 January 2019 and 31 January 2020, authorities issued at least 147 decisions, in 25 cities, to ban all assemblies and events for a period ranging from 2 days to 395 days. Meetings and demonstrations in the city of Van remain banned since November 2016. When protesters defy bans to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, they often face police violence and violent dispersal of protests. Women’s rights and environmental organisations, as well as LGBTI+ and labour rights defenders, are particularly targeted and prevented from exercising their freedom of assembly. These bans and violent dispersal of peaceful protests are direct violations of the freedom of assembly, but are only one of the mechanisms used by the government to weaken civic space.

Turkey’s Civil Society on the Line: A Shrinking Space for Freedom of Association

Erdoğan’s crackdown on civil society also includes an arsenal of legislative amendments designed to heighten governmental oversight on civil society and limit the freedom of association, which is documented in the Observatory’s second report, published in May 2021. One such legislative measure, Law No. 7262, came into force on 31 December 2020. It allows the minister of interior to suspend staff members and/or executives of civil society organisations who are being prosecuted on terrorism-related charges and increases the administrative fines that apply to organisations that collect donations through online platforms without getting prior approval by the authorities.

While excessively burdensome administrative and fiscal requirements inhibit the work of civil society actors and complex bureaucratic requirements are reportedly used as a pretext to crack down on civil society organisations, public resources are increasingly channelled to newly emerged government-organised NGOs (GONGOs). These organisations are presented as an alternative civil society that endorses the government’s actions.

Drowned in Procedure, Sentenced to Fail: Administrative Harassment Against Civil Society in Turkey

These measures diminishing the rights to freedom of assembly and association are completed by the use of judiciary and administrative harassment against human rights defenders. This tactic is the theme of the Observatory’s third and final report. After being acquitted of two charges, IHD’s co-chair, Öztürk Türkdoğan, still faces one charge in the criminal case where he allegedly insulted the minister of interior, Süleyman Soylu, through a public statement by IHD criticising threatening remarks made by the minister. Sixteen members of the Migration Monitoring Association were arbitrarily arrested earlier this month (June 2022). Two associations – the Tarlabaşı Community Centre and the We Will Stop Femicides Platform – face baseless closure cases. All of these cases were filed following administrative audits against the associations, demonstrating how administrative acts and sanctions are used to harass civil society and pave the way for judicial harassment.

Judicial harassment in the form of arbitrary detention and arrest, investigations, trials and convictions against defenders in retaliation for their legitimate human rights work continue since the state of emergency, violating the right to defend human rights and exerting a chilling effect over civil society more broadly. IHD’s other co-chair, Eren Keskin, is also enduring harassment and was recently sentenced to six years and three months of imprisonment for "membership in an armed group." Other human rights defenders such as Osman Kavala, Fırat Akdeniz, and 46 participants in the Saturday Mothers/People’s peaceful vigils were recently sentenced to prison or arbitrarily arrested and detained. This harassment, accompanied by smear campaigns against defenders, constitutes a tool of Erdoğan’s regime to stigmatise civil society and HRDs in the eyes of the public, against which human rights defenders have no effective remedy, considering the judiciary’s lack of independence.

This extensive documentation and analysis of the threats to civil society and the diminishing of civic space in Turkey allows for recommendations to the Government of Turkey and to international actors, aiming to give voice to the legitimate concerns raised by civil society and human rights defenders in Turkey. International bodies can take steps including monitoring the situation, conducting visits to the country to assess the impact of rights restrictions on the work of civil society groups, raising concerns and issuing recommendations to the Government of Turkey through public statements and in diplomatic channels at both the bilateral level and in multilateral fora to ensure that fundamental rights, freedom of assembly and association, and HRDs’ safety are finally respected.

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