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7 March 2023

Turkey: Harassment of human rights defenders in earthquake region must stop

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the reports of violence, legal harassment, arbitrary arrests and threats against human rights defenders in the regions affected by the devastating earthquake in Turkey and calls Turkish authorities to not obstruct their work. Human rights defenders who were perceived as criticising the government are specifically targeted by security forces on the ground.

On 27 February 2023, woman human rights defender Pelin Songül Çiçek, member of Mor Dayanışma (Purple Solidarity), and other aid volunteers were verbally harassed and arbitrarily detained by security forces in Hatay Province while distributing aid and conversing with the local people. Mor Dayanışma is a women’s rights organisation originally from Hatay and has been on the ground reaching out to earthquake survivors since the rescue efforts began.

In the early morning of 27 February 2023, Pelin Songül Cengiz and two other volunteers went to Güzelburç village of Hatay to distribute aid to the villagers after hearing from other volunteers that no aid was delivered there. When the human rights defenders arrived to the village they camped at the school yard with the food and sanitary equipment they brought and started chatting with the volunteers and villagers who were complaining about the lack or delayed rescue and aid efforts. The armed security forces (gendarmerie special ops) approached the group and warned them not to criticise the government and threatened them, saying “you cannot say such things against the state or else you know what we will do”. The woman human rights defender and the other volunteers reacted by telling the security members that if there was an offence they should record it and initiate an inquiry against them.

After the arrival of more security personnel, the locals were forced out of the school yard, keeping only the aid volunteers there. The group was asked to hand in their IDs, they were rounded into a circle and forced to delete all the images and videos they had been taking of the encounter. According to the woman human rights defender Pelin Songül Çiçek, the gendarmerie pointed to the videos to be deleted on their phone screen with the barrel of his rifle, with the intention to intimidate the volunteers. Only after a group of lawyers arrived and talked with the security force was the group released, having been de facto arbitrarily arrested for two hours.

Furthermore many human rights defenders and journalists have been threatened, attacked, detained and even arrested for doing their jobs. According to a recent report by Dicle Firat Journalists Association, at least four journalists were arrested and investigations were initiated against 6 journalists for reporting news in the earthquake region in February 2023.

On 23 February 2023, Halk TV reporter and woman human rights defender Seyhan Avşar, was informed that an investigation for “insult” and “libel” has been initiated against her in relation to her reporting about a possible death in custody. According to her news article published on Halk TV website, the man was taken into custody at Altınözü Gendarmarie Command in Hatay along with his brother who was accused of theft and looting. The same day, he died in the field hospital after being rushed there. The preliminary forensic report shows multiple injuries to the body, including a broken nose and brain haemorrhage.

Many journalists on the ground reported that they were stopped by security forces while trying to cover news and were threatened by officials not to report anything that would undermine the government. On 27 February 2023, the journalists Ali İmat and İbrahim İmat were detained and arrested at the court where they were transferred to with charges of publicly disseminating false information in relation to a post they shared on social media. The post asked the authorities to respond to the allegations that the tents which were sent for distributing to the earthquake survivors have still been kept in the warehouse instead of distributing it to the earthquake survivors. The arrest came following the decision of the Osmaniye Criminal Judgeship of Peace and the charges carry a possible sentence of up to three years in prison. Ali İmat and İbrahim İmat are currently detained at Osmaniye Prison.

Several demonstrations where the protesters took to the streets to protest the government’s response to the earthquake were violently dispersed by security forces, resulting in the arrest of many human rights defenders, including trade union members and physicians. Several journalists were also attacked or prevented from reporting during the demonstrations. The police arrested at least 198 people during the protest held in Istanbul on 26 February 2023, who were released late at night of the same day.

Front Line Defenders reminds the Turkish authorities of the article 1 of the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid which states “Humanitarian aid is a fundamental expression of the universal value of solidarity between people and a moral imperative”. The Consensus also emphasises that “the ‘humanitarian space’ that is needed to ensure access to vulnerable populations and the safety and security of humanitarian workers must be preserved as essential preconditions for the delivery of humanitarian aid".

Front Line Defenders urges the Turkish government to ensure a safe and enabling working environment for human rights defenders who have been tirelessly working in the region since the first day of the earthquake and to stop the targetting of them as a result of their legitimate work in the defence of human rights. Security forces and officials must allow all human rights defenders and volunteers to continue their work to deliver the necessary and life-saving goods and services to survivors. Human rights defenders should be able to document and report the developments on the ground without fear of violence and arrests.

Image: The wreckage of a collapsed building, Diyarbakır, Turkey, 6 February 2023. Credit: VOA