Turkey continued to punish dissent in 2020: Amnesty annual report

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Turkey continued to apply broadly defined anti-terrorism laws to punish acts protected under international human rights law in 2020, disregarding fair trial guarantees and due process, Amnesty International (AI) said in its annual report reviewing the situation of human rights around the world, published on Wednesday.

“The judicial harassment of individuals such as journalists, politicians, activists, social media users and human rights defenders for their real or perceived dissent continued,” the report said.

According to AI, some members of the judiciary and legal profession also faced sanctions for the legitimate exercise of their professional duties, indicating state overreach.

The report cited a law that changed the structure of bar associations in July. The new law, protested by thousands of lawyers and opposed by 78 out of 80 bar associations, weakens the associations’ authority and independence, according to Amnesty.

“Criminal investigations targeting lawyers for representing clients accused of ‘terrorism-related offences’ continued,” the report said, citing the detention of 47 lawyers on the charge of membership in a terrorist organization, 15 of whom were remanded in pre-trial detention. 

In a bid to silence dissent, the government continued to use “criminal investigations and prosecutions under anti-terrorism laws and punitive pre-trial detention,” despite the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the rights group said.

On top of the crackdown on dissent, as COVID-19 spread in the country, the government excluded prisoners in pre-trial detention and those convicted under terrorism laws in an amendment to the law on the execution of sentences which enabled the early release of up to 90,000 prisoners, AI said.

“Journalists and other media workers remained in pre-trial detention or served custodial sentences. Some prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws were convicted and sentenced to years of imprisonment, their legitimate work presented as evidence of criminal offenses,” the report said, citing the detention of 12 journalists for their reporting of the COVID-19 pandemic and the imprisonment of six journalists for their reporting on the funeral of two alleged intelligence officers from the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) killed in Libya. 

Human rights defenders who strove to maintain rights work in the country also faced repression, according to the report.

AI’s annual report then referred to the trial of 11 human rights defenders, which concluded with two of its former leaders’ conviction on terrorism charges in July. The trial became a symbol of the crackdown on critics after a 2016 failed attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

İdil Eser, former Amnesty Turkey director, was among three people sentenced to 25 months for “helping a terrorist organization.”

Former Amnesty International Turkey chair Taner Kılıç was sentenced to six years, three months for “membership in a terrorist organization.” 

The report also pointed to the deteriorating situation for the rights of women and girls, citing the death of 266 women as a result of gender-based violence in 2020 and earlier signs of a possible withdrawal from a treaty to combat violence against women, widely known as the Istanbul Convention. These signs became reality in March 2021 when President Erdoğan decided to withdraw the country from the treaty.

Torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances

Turkey has experienced a marked resurgence of torture and ill-treatment in custody over the past five years and especially since a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Lack of condemnation from higher officials and a readiness to cover up allegations rather than investigate them have resulted in widespread impunity for security forces, according to the Stockholm Center for Freedom.

As for 2020, the AI report referred to the cases of two Kurdish villagers, Servet Turgut and Osman Şiban, who were detained as part of an operation conducted by Turkish security forces in Van’s Çatak district on September 11 and were found by their families in a hospital with serious injuries two days later.

Turgut succumbed to his injuries in the hospital on Sept. 30, while Şiban was discharged on Sept. 20. According to Şiban’s testimony, they were beaten by a large group of soldiers.

“In October, four journalists who covered the case were arrested in Van for being ‘members of a terrorist organization’ on the grounds of the news agencies they worked for,” the report said, referring to female journalists Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala from the Jinnews agency and Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur from the Mesopotamia Agency.

The report also cited cases of enforced disappearances that became worryingly common in the country after the abortive putsch.

Gökhan Türkmen, one of seven men who went missing in 2019 who recounted the torture and other ill-treatment he had been subjected to during the 271 days of his enforced disappearance in court, was mentioned in the report as well as Yusuf Bilge Tunç, who disappeared in August 2019. Tunç’s whereabouts remain unknown.

The report did not mention Hüseyin Galip Küçüközyiğit, a former bureaucrat who has been missing since Dec. 29. 

His daughter Nursena Küçüközyiğit said she contacted the police, who did not help them or respond to their questions. A prosecutor was finally appointed to the case 18 days after Küçüközyiğit went missing. Yet, according to his daughter, the prosecutor decided that there was no need to pursue legal action in the case.

Nearly 30 people have reportedly been abducted by Turkish intelligence since 2016. Most of the abductions targeted members of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Many of the abductees mysteriously reappeared in police custody in Ankara after six to nine-month absences.

President Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding.

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