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Erdoğan puts intense pressure on NGOs with controversial new law

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Alin Ozinian

Turkey’s parliament on Dec. 27 passed a controversial bill that increases the monitoring of associations and foundations. Six out of the law’s 43 articles include means and regulations to combat the financing of terrorism, Human Rights Watch said in a statement, and the rest “grant the Interior Ministry and the president wide authority to restrict the activities of independent groups and diminish their role.” The bill was rushed to parliament for approval on Dec. 18, without consultation with the civil society organizations it will affect the most.

Critics say the new legislation, titled “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” will put pressure on NGOs and damage civil society. The law, which gives the state the power to replace the boards of NGOs with trustees (kayyums), has been sharply criticized for expanding government control over civil society groups in the name of “combating terrorism financing.” International organizations with offices in Turkey will also fall under the oversight of the Interior Ministry.

NGOs are currently obligated to inform the authorities of donations they have raised; however, according to this law NGOs must first obtain a license to solicit donations. When fundraising is conducted without a license, the money raised by the organizations can be seized and the NGOs can be subject to high administrative fines.

However, according to the bill, the assets and online donation campaigns of NGOs could be blocked after inspections as a way to prevent “money laundering and terrorism financing.”

NGOs, human rights activists and opposition parties think that with this step the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) aims to break resistance to government policies and silence dissident voices. Civil society has already been under pressure in Turkey, and this move is seen as a way to silence the last critical voices in society.

“The Turkish government’s new law on curbing financing of terrorism, with the new powers it grants the Interior Ministry, conceals within it another purpose: that is to curtail and restrict the legitimate activities of any nongovernmental group it doesn’t like,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and, Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This law will become a dangerous tool to limit freedom of association, and the provisions relating to nongovernmental organizations should be withdrawn immediately.”

Turkish Minute spoke with Eren Keskin, a prominent human rights defender and lawyer in Turkey who thinks the law is a blow to freedom of expression, freedom of association and civil society solidarity.

“This law was drafted at the request of the UN Security Council. It’s a law on the destruction of weapons of mass destruction. However, the Turkish Republic, as it always does, added a provision to the law to prevent civil society’s struggle against the government’s non-democratic policies. They approved it in parliament in the blink of an eye, so there was no time for debate.”

Terror charges in Turkey are mostly unwarranted and have targeted opponents as a way to suppress the political opposition, journalists and civil society activists in recent years. It is important to note that the AKP government’s years-long attacks on freedom of expression now directly target civil society associations and organizations.

Turkey’s crackdown on civil society intensified in 2016 when the government declared a state of emergency following a failed coup, with presidential decrees shutting down hundreds of foundations and associations. Since then the arrest and indictment of members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Gülen movement followers and journalists show that the government’s perspective on human rights is prejudiced and problematic.

Furthermore, approval of the new bill left non-Muslim community foundations disappointed. In 2013 the AKP government blocked community foundations, which are protected under the Lausanne Treaty, from holding board member elections. In addition to existing financial and political problems, this new law will make life difficult for them.

A minority community member who requested anonymity thinks the activities of the foundations are becoming difficult to continue. “Very soon it will be impossible for our institutions to operate. New ideas and dynamism are no longer allowed. We can’t even elect our board members. Donations and fundraising are already under the strict control of the state. Besides this, this new law will drive us into a corner. We already have fears and are very careful in our actions, but from now on there will be a new climate of fear for us,” he told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

Opposition parties slammed the new law. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) expressed concern that the legislation would take associations “outside the scope of freedom of assembly and into an illegal entity that doesn’t have any place in a democracy” in a counter statement. The CHP declared that the relevant articles of the law were “unconstitutional,” while the HDP said the law was “an indication of a repressive regime.”

The Human Rights Association (İHD), the Amnesty International office in Turkey, the Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey and numerous other NGOs warn that associations, foundations and human rights activists are often accused of terrorism and that implementation of the new legislation will rely on an unclear definition of terrorism.

More than 500 civil society organizations in Turkey issued a joint statement against the law, which according to them will “destroy civil society.”

“All NGOs in Turkey will be at risk of being shut down with a single signature,” the civil society statement said.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) expressed concern about the law. “This law could result in ‘temporary suspensions’ of NGO leaders facing terror-related investigations and their replacement by government-appointed trustees, as well as more controls imposed on NGOs’ fundraising activities and donations from foreign countries,” it said.

Keskin, who is also a founding member of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), believes that civil society, one of the last bastions of Turkey’s democratic and secular life could lose all judicial guarantees to maintain its existence in the country because of this new law. “These kinds of policies remind us of the period of military coups in Turkey,” she said.

Keskin says the new legislation contravenes several articles of the constitution, in particular the right to privacy and the right to own property as well as several international conventions to which Turkey is signatory.

“This law is against the ‘presumption of innocence,’ which is a fundamental principle of common law. Every person should be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty following a fair trial. However, with the help of the new law the AKP can easily file a lawsuit against an association member for political reasons and a trustee can be appointed by the interior minister. Their assets can be seized. This is unacceptable,” Keskin told Turkish Minute.

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, also voiced concerns before the approval pf the law. She said it would allow the state to restrict civil society activism in the country and target critical voices. “The Turkish Parliament should discontinue attempts to introduce legislation further restricting legitimate NGO activities, including replacement of NGO leaders facing investigations under anti-terror laws with gov-appointed trustees and restrictions on fund-raising activities.” she tweeted.

Human rights activists say the new law targets directors and workers of many associations and foundations, especially in the fields of human, women’s, LGBTI+ and refugee rights, who have previously faced charges of terrorism or spying.

Many NGO workers consider the law a reflection of the growing authoritarianism of the AKP regime. They agree that the aim of the legislation is to stop the activities of a few civil society organizations that can raise opposing voices.

Briefly, in an environment where the media and judiciary are under the absolute control of the government. and when some political parties and civil society organizations are acting in concert with the government, NGOs are the only organizations that still refuse to “obey.”

“Some NGOs have already decided to work with the government or were brought under its rule by pressure, but there are still organizations that are free and try to fight for democracy and human rights. The government wants to break their ties with international human rights organizations and limit international solidarity,” Keskin said.

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