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24 May 2017

As President Erdoğan visits Brussels for NATO summit, Front Line Defenders urges that he be held to account for treatment of human rights defenders

On 25 May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will join the leaders of other NATO nations to attend a summit of the military alliance in Brussels. Front Line Defenders takes this opportunity to highlight to those leaders the continued deterioration of human rights in Turkey. We urge them to call on the Turkish government to fulfil the country’s international human rights obligations and to cease the systematic targeting of human rights defenders (HRDs).

Since this summit will provide a space for NATO leaders to discuss members’ responsibilities within the alliance, in addition to strategies for strengthening national and international security, we remind members that parties to the North Atlantic Treaty pledge to ‘safeguard the freedom’ of their citizens and that their societies are to be founded on “principles of democracy, individual liberty and rule of law”. These are principles which have been largely absent from Turkey in the past number of years, and especially since the failed coup in 2016. HRDs, who are key to securing peaceful and just societies, have been relentlessly targeted by the Erdoğan regime and labelled as threats to the national interest. During his visit to Brussels, President Erdoğan will also meet with European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President, Donald Tusk, both of whom must stress the key role that HRDs play and call for their protection, in line with EU policy.

Front Line Defenders is particularly concerned by the wide-ranging use of emergency laws in the wake of the coup attempt to restrict the liberty of those engaged in human rights work. Under this pretext, the Turkish government has introduced Emergency Decree Laws No. 689 and 690, both of which conflict with basic human rights safeguards. By limiting the work of HRDs, these laws enable even further human rights violations as HRDs often do not have the freedom to monitor the activities of the security forces. Such laws are not underpinned by legitimate security concerns.(1) 

Since July 2016, the security forces have also been granted extensive powers to detain and hold incommunicado those suspected of involvement in the coup attempt and/or in activities of alleged terrorist groups. HRDs are often targeted in these sweeps and their work highlighting human rights violations is used as ‘evidence’ of their ‘opposition to the government’.  Such suspects are also frequently subjected to dismissal from their jobs in the public service without prior investigation, confiscation of their property without judicial review, and criminal investigation on trumped-up charges and false accusations. Tens of thousands of employees from the public sector, the mass media, educational and cultural institutions, the legal system, law enforcement agencies, and the military have been dismissed from their positions, and a large number of them, including independent and critical journalists and news outlets, civil and political activists, trade unionists, students, and human rights defenders, continue to be exposed to judicial harassment and intimidation, despite a lack of evidence of their criminal wrongdoing or alleged affiliation with terrorist organisations and movements.

Through use of the state of emergency laws, the government has imposed blanket bans on demonstrations, and police often use excessive force against protesters, thousands of whom face legal proceedings. More than three hundred human rights and humanitarian organisations, as well as hundreds of independent media outlets and investigative journalists, have been banned by the State or placed under criminal investigation for ‘propaganda of terrorism,’ ‘insulting the Turkish President,’ and/ or ‘revealing state secrets’. The right to freedom of speech is severely restricted in the name of fighting terrorism, and the state has imposed strict controls. Authorities have harassed, blocked and seized media outlets, which has led to the practice of self-censorship. Independent journalists have also been subjected to attack.

Even before the attempted coup, Turkish authorities had taken steps to curtail civil rights. President Erdoğan limited the independence of the judiciary, bringing it under control of the state. Under Law No. 6722, introduced on 23 June 2016, law enforcement agents have been granted impunity from prosecution for abuses committed during counter-terrorism operations in areas where no independent observation is permitted to take place. Those critical of the government’s repressive policies towards the Kurdish community and who promote and protect the rights of minorities, including religious, cultural, and sexual minorities, or the rights of women and trade unions, continue to undergo various forms of reprisals, discrimination and attacks. Their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly are routinely violated by the authorities. Since January 2016, the authorities have moved against a number of academics who signed a statement denouncing the curfews and cruelty of police in the Kurdish regions in the southeast of the country, and who called on the government to lift the curfews and work towards the establishment of a sustainable peace process.  They are currently being persecuted for “propaganda of terrorism” or “denigrating the Turkish nation,” and are subjected to widespread defamation. Since the coup attempt, hundreds more academics have been removed from their positions, harassed and otherwise deprived of their rights.  Lawyers who provide legal assistance to HRDs and those accused of terrorism also face huge obstacles in performing their work and are liable to arrest, detention and prosecution.

Front Line Defenders believes that the above measures are being used by the Turkish government to silence anyone critical of the Erdoğan regime. This necessarily includes HRDs, who have been instrumental in alerting the world to the extent of the violations taking place. Such measures are incompatible with the rule of law and do not pursue a legitimate aim. By muting the voices of HRDs and smothering political opposition, President Erdoğan is actively undermining the return of Turkey to a state of peace and security.
 
Front Line Defenders calls on NATO leaders to urge the Turkish government to uphold the standards of human rights, rule of law, and democracy that the alliance members adhere to, and to impel Turkey to:

1) Take all necessary measures to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of all HRDs, journalists and lawyers imprisoned or detained in Turkey solely for their peaceful and legitimate human rights work and exercise of free speech, as well as to ensure and guarantee their physical and psychological security and integrity;

2) Cease all further forms of surveillance or harassment against HRDs in Turkey;

3) Conduct prompt, thorough, impartial and transparent investigations into cases of violent attacks, threats, and other forms of intimidation and harassment against HRDs, journalists and lawyers, and to ensure that impunity for abuses against them is not allowed to flourish;

4) Take measures to ensure that government officials or other public figures refrain from making statements or declaration stigmatising the legitimate work of HRDs, journalists and lawyers;

5) In cooperation with civil society, amend or repeal all legislation which unduly restricts the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and criminalises the legitimate human rights activities of HRDs, journalists, lawyers, and bring the existing legislative system into full compliance with the standards of international human rights law;

6) Review its definitions of offences related to terrorism and membership of a criminal organisation, in line with the Action Plan for the Prevention of Violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted by Turkey in February 2014, as well as revise legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards by narrowing the scope of its definition and introducing a criterion of proportionality. It should be underlined that state attempts to combat terrorism must be human rights compliant and remain within the rule of law;

7) Reiterate the invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.

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1) In March 2017, the Venice Commission issued its Opinion in relation to the legislative amendments in Turkey, concluding that “the Government interpreted its extraordinary powers too extensively and took measures that went beyond what is permitted by the Turkish Constitution and by international law”.