Turkey’s government has increased its censorship powers and targeted perceived critics and opponents with bogus criminal proceedings and prison sentences in advance of the 2023 elections, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its World Report 2023 released on Thursday.
Turkey is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in June. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has declining support according to the results of opinion surveys, is seeking re-election.
“The Erdogan government has expedited its retreat from human rights and the rule of law by adding new online censorship and disinformation laws to muzzle the media and suppress peaceful dissent,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “The government has carried out highly abusive maneuvers against the political opposition, blanket bans on public protest, and the jailing and conviction of human rights defenders and perceived critics by courts operating under political orders.”
The controversial “disinformation” law, which criminalizes the dissemination of “false or misleading information” and stipulates prison sentences of between one and three years, was approved in parliament and signed by Erdoğan in October. The law has attracted widespread criticism from rights groups and the opposition on accusations it will further cripple free speech in Turkey.
In the 712-page World Report 2023, its 33rd edition, HRW reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. The Turkey section includes developments in Turkey in 2022 on a wide range of human rights issues.
LGBT and women’s rights
According to the HRW, the Turkish government increased its hateful government discourse against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and failed to protect women from domestic violence and uphold women’s rights and gender equality.
Although homosexuality was decriminalized by the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, in 1858, it is widely frowned upon by large segments of the society, including President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), while same-sex couples are not legal.
One minister previously referred to gay people as “deranged.”
In 2021, the government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention on protecting women’s rights, claiming it encouraged homosexuality and threatened the traditional family structure.
At least 334 women in Turkey were killed by men in 2022 while 245 others died under suspicious circumstances, according data from the We Will Stop Femicide Platform (KCDP).
Conviction of Kavala and others
In its report, the HRW also accuses Turkey of flouting binding rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), most notably the demand for the release of human rights defender Osman Kavala, which led the Council of Europe in February to vote for the exceptional measure of triggering infringement proceedings against Turkey, a form of sanction process used for the second time in the council’s history.
Kavala has been behind bars on politically motivated charges since October 2017. A Turkish appeals court last month decided to uphold his and seven other defendants’s conviction in a trial concerning the anti-government Gezi Park protests of 2013. In April, he had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on conviction of attempting to overthrow the government by financing the protests. The seven other defendants were given 18 years each for aiding in the attempt.
“The shocking conviction in April 2022 of Kavala and codefendants, who are all in prison, and the continuing detention of the politicians Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yüksekdağ, and others, demonstrates the intensity with which this government has embraced a role as a leading human rights violator in the Council of Europe,” HRW said, calling for the immediate release of all in accordance with the binding rulings of the ECtHR.
Kurdish politicians Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ have been behind bars on bogus terrorism charges since November 2016. Demirtaş remains jailed despite ECtHR rulings calling for his immediate release.
The HRW reported also focused on problems faced by refugees in Turkey as the country hosts the highest number of refugees in the world, with an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees, in addition to asylum seekers from other countries.
HRW said Turkey increased deportation flights of Afghans to Afghanistan despite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ call on all governments not to forcibly return Afghans. Turkish authorities also summarily pushed back hundreds of thousands of people attempting to enter Turkey via its eastern border with Iran, and deported hundreds of Syrians to Syria by forcing them to sign voluntary return forms.
Less than six months before the elections, the presence of the refugees in Turkey has become a sensitive political issue, especially as Turkey struggles with an economic and currency crisis. Opposition parties regularly call on authorities to send millions of Syrians home, while the government says it is working to create the appropriate circumstances in Syria to enable the Syrians to return voluntarily.
Torture and ill-treatment in custody
HRW said allegations of torture and ill-treatment in police custody and prison over the past six years have rarely been subject to effective investigations or the prosecution of perpetrators. There are also regular reports of ill-treatment, including severe beatings and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and over-crowding in removal centers where foreign nationals including asylum seekers and migrants are subject to administrative detention pending deportation procedures.
Claims about torture and ill-treatment in police custody and prison in Turkey culminated following a failed coup in 2016 when the Turkish government launched a massive crackdown on non-loyalist citizens under the pretext of an anti-coup fight.