Six Ways Human Rights are at Risk in Turkey after the Coup Attempt

This blog is cross posted from the Huffington Post

On July 16, a faction of the Turkish military initiated an attempted coup. It disagreed with President Erdogan’s increased politicization of religion in the country. After arresting top military officials, killing the top counter-terror official, closing down the two main bridges in Istanbul, damaging state buildings including the parliament, national intelligence center, and law enforcement buildings, and nearly killing President Erdogan, the coup eventually failed. President Erdogan has blamed the coup attempt on US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally whose followers run a worldwide network of schools.

During these events the United States expressed support for the democratically-elected government. But notably, Secretary Kerry, speaking with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, also emphasized the need for Turkey, as a member of NATO, to preserve the rule of law and due process and to exercise restraint in reacting to the attempt.

Sadly, though not unexpectedly, rule of law seems to be farthest from the mind of the government as officials pursue a scorched-earth policy in the coup aftermath, arresting tens of thousands, firing tens of thousands, failing to stop rampant street violence, and breeding more fear in the population. Human rights are at serious risk in Turkey, and human rights organizations and human rights-friendly governments need to be vigilant in support of fundamental rights and the rule of law in Turkey.

First, Turkey is curtailing free speech and free media by blocking dozens of websites since Saturday, alleging that they endanger national security or the public order. On Tuesday, the country’s media regulation body also revoked the licenses of 24 radio and TV stations and the press credentials of 34 journalists allegedly tied to Gulen. Reporters Without Borders reported that many of the websites that are blocked simply mentioned that there was a coup attempt, and did not advocate any illegal activity.

Human rights lawyers have filed requests with the Turkish constitutional court to quash provisions that allow the government to block sites on broad “national security” grounds, but so far their requests have not been resolved. The blocked sites have fueled fears of further arrests of journalists. A warrant for the arrest of Arzu Yuldiz, a journalist with Haberdar news, was issued on Monday, and lists of supposedly pro-Gulen journalists at risk for arrest have been circulated on social networks.

Second, the Turkish government is violating the rights of freedom of association and (again) free speech by firing and arresting 2745 judges, including ten members of the Judges and Prosecutors High Council, who were alleged Gulenists. Hundreds of prosecutors and about 9000 police officers were also dismissed. Educational professionals were also targeted, with more than 15,200 teachers and educators suspended from work, 1577 deans ordered to resign, and the licenses of 21,000 teachers working at private institutions revoked.

The total number of those arrested has topped 60,000, now including financial sector officials and members of the Religious Affairs Directorate. Many, including most academics, have also received travel bans, prohibiting them from leaving the country and violating their freedom of movement. Indeed, academics were told that if they did not show up for work at 8:30 a.m. this morning, they would be fired, requiring that those away conducting research choose between losing their jobs or preserving their liberty. Erdogan seems to have prepared an arrest list prior to the coup, and is acting quickly to clamp down on those he believed were critical of his regime. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a clear link between those arrested and participation in the coup or a threat to Turkey in many cases.

Third, the right to life and right to proportional sentencing is at risk in Turkey because Erdogan has stated that he will reinstate the death penalty if parliament agrees. Parliament is scheduled to meet this week to discuss the issue. Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 as part of its bid to join the European Union. If it is reinstated, Turkey’s membership in NATO may be suspended, its path toward E.U. membership would be threatened, and it would buck a worldwide trend toward abolition that has been gaining momentum over the past few years.

Fourth, the rights of refugees to safe passage and safe harbor are put at risk by threats to Turkey’s deal with the European Union. Processing times for refugees transiting out will likely slow. In Turkey it is the government, rather than the U.N. refugee agency that manages the estimated 2.7 refugees in the country.

Prior to the coup attempt, it took about eight months for the Turkish government to process exit requests. It’s now likely to take much longer. It’s also looking less likely that Turkey will honor the terms of its deal with the European Union, in which Erdogan agreed to change harsh and overly-broad anti-terror laws to bring them in line with E.U. standards in exchange for money to support refugees and a liberalized E.U. visa regime.

Turkey’s post-coup approach may also effect regional and global security; with its focus on internal foes, Turkey could be less supportive and less effective at combating external enemies, such as ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad.

Fifth, the fundamental right to fair trial is threatened by the extreme street violence that began in the wake of the coup, including acts of torture. Since Saturday, journalists have documented incidents of torture and violence in the streets against soldiers that were involved in the attempt, many of whom were young conscripts. They have been stripped, beaten, and in one case possibly beheaded by mobs. Photographs document some of the violence, and demonstrate that police are standing by and allowing extreme violence to occur. Amnesty International is also investigating reports that those involved in the coup attempt are being mistreated in custody and denied access to counsel.

Sixth, in declaring a three-month state of emergency today, Erdogan has put rule of law and due process at risk. The state of emergency makes it possible for Erdogan and his cabinet to bypass parliament when creating new legislation, prevents the constitutional court from reviewing new policies, broadens police power to arrest, and suspends application of the European Convention on Human Rights and the individual protections (free speech, liberty rights, etc.) it provides.

Turkey’s actions may have already had ripple effects outside the country. Neighboring Azerbaijan, an ally of Turkey, just this week clamped down further on its media, telling journalists not to provide support to those in favor of the coup. Neighboring Armenia has experienced its own unrest since Sunday when opposition gunmen attempted to take over a police building and took hostages in the capital of Yerevan, an act some think was inspired by the coup.

The United States and human rights-friendly governments need to keep reminding Erdogan that extreme crackdowns on civil liberties and minority rights could breed extremism and lead to greater instability, the opposite of what Erdogan seeks. The United States and its E.U. allies must continue to warn Turkish officials that repressing, revoking, or ignoring basic rights will put the country’s membership in the European Union and NATO at risk, as well as the benefits they provide in terms of expanded Turkish markets, global prestige, and Turkey’s connection to the international community.

In addition to U.S. government vigilance, human rights organizations need to monitor the situation and help get the word out about developments within Turkey. The United States should support and encourage human rights monitoring and encourage Turkey to provide civil society with access to information. Clearly documented evidence of repressive developments and human rights violations will allow Turkish allies to step in to persuade Turkey that it may be better—when running a country as in any relationship—not to act rashly, but to take the long view.


Published on July 25, 2016


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