Human Rights Watch's letter to Mr. Abdullah Gül, Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Human Rights, regarding the continuing restrictions on freedom of assembly in Turkey. Article 34 of the Turkish Constitution and article 3 of the Law on Demonstrations and Public Meetings (Law 2911) state that every citizen has the right to hold peaceful meetings and marches without prior permission. Freedom of assembly is also guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights).

Human Rights Watch recognizes that the most recent reform package passed in July 2003 brought welcome improvements to Law 2911, including a reduction in the period of notice of intention to demonstrate from 72 to 48 hours, and a provision that governors can ban only gatherings where there is a “clear and imminent threat of a criminal offence being committed.”

In practice, however, the right to peaceful assembly in Turkey is still frequently curtailed. According to news reports, in the nine months since parliament passed the reform package, police have dispersed at least 105 peaceful public gatherings, press conferences and demonstrations, and arrested 1,822 demonstrators. The news reports gave no indication that the meetings had been anything but peaceful until the police intervened. Police used violence to break up gatherings on thirty-one occasions—beating demonstrators and spraying them with pepper gas.

During the same period, courts tried hundreds of demonstrators and members of civil society organizations under Law 2911 for attempting to hold press conferences. Scores received prison sentences, though most of the sentences were suspended. University authorities suspended a large number of students who participated in demonstrations, but in some cases students sought judicial review in administrative courts and achieved a reversal of these punishments. The vast majority of incidents arise from small gatherings for open-air press conferences. A judgment by the Eighth Chamber of the Supreme Court on February 2, 2000 [Judgment 2000/1554] ruled that Ankara Criminal Court No 10 had been wrong to convict under Law 2911 a group of trade unionists who had gathered outside a prison to give a press conference concerning the Justice Ministry’s treatment of prison staff. The Supreme Court described the trade unionists’ action as “a democratic reaction.” On the strength of this judgment, civil society organizations and individuals regularly attempt to hold press conferences without notifying the authorities. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, they often encounter severe treatment by police and frequently prosecution and conviction in the courts.

Restrictions on freedom of assembly have an impact that extends far beyond those whose rights are restricted. During 2003, the Turkish Human Rights Association recorded forty-five public meetings prohibited or postponed on the orders of local governors; thirty-two prosecutions were opened during the same period involving 855 people, with a total of 2,266 years in sentences demanded by prosecutors. In the south-eastern provinces alone, 906 people were detained in connection with police interventions in press conferences and similar activities. It is difficult for Turkish human rights organizations to express strong faith in the government’s commitment to reform while they are having to deal with such a large volume of cases, and also while their own right to assembly is so commonly curtailed.

The Role of the Police and Governors
Human Rights Watch accepts that circumstances surrounding the dispersal of a demonstration may be difficult to assess even for an on-the-spot observer, and that the police are not always responsible when an initially non-violent event turns into a running street-battle. Nevertheless, a combination of news reports, video footage and Human Rights Watch's own eyewitness observations leave no doubt that local governors and police are more restrictive than necessary toward demonstrations and public gatherings of a political nature.

While the degree of restriction varies considerably throughout the country, the default official position appears to be that people who are critical of state policy should not to be allowed to protest, and particularly not in public places located in city centres. Non-governmental organizations complain that the forms of notification required by governors are excessive – including home phone numbers, records of past prosecutions, and even lists of placard messages and slogans to be used in the proposed demonstration. On September 1, 2003, for example, police prevented people carrying placards bearing the words “Human Rights Association” to participate in a demonstration in Diyarbakýr on World Peace Day because the phrase was not included on a list submitted in advance.

In some provinces, including Ankara, Adýyaman and Adana, governors are taking a more positive approach to the right to demonstrate, and are willing to permit large groups of people to conduct their protest and disperse without police interference.

The police have dispersed a wide variety of non-violent demonstrations since July 2003, including protests by members of left and right wing organizations, trade unions, human rights organizations, Kurdish groups, students and environmentalists. The violent arrest of a group of students in Istanbul on October 28, 2003, is a typical example. The students, all members of the Initiative for a Federation of Youth Associations, were gathered in a park area near Bostanci Bridge in Istanbul for their third attempt to begin a march to Ankara to protest the activities of the Higher Education Council, government policy concerning Iraq, and problems in F-type prisons. A report in the newspaper Hürriyet (Liberation) of October 29, 2003 stated that the “anti-riot police sprayed the students with teargas, and detained them, kicking and slapping them, and pulling them by their hair.” Television news footage shown by Channel 7 showed an earlier attempt by the students to hold their press conference on October 23, 2003. The footage shows the students reading a text while completely surrounded by a phalanx of police officers who order the students to disperse and then violently assault them.

Four members of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) were demonstrating outside the president’s residence in Ankara on 12 August, 2003 to protest negotiations to send Turkish peacekeepers to Iraq. All four were arrested and charged with breaches of Law 2911. On the same day, the police used pepper gas and truncheons to break up another peaceful ÖDP protest on Istiklal street in Istanbul, and detained thirty people.

On October 29, 2003, police officers broke up a sit-down protest concerning F-type prisons by the Mothers for Peace Initiative outside Galatasaray post office. Among those detained were Kiraz Biçici, the president of the Istanbul branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association and Vakkas Aksu, a CNN Türk correspondent. On January 15, 2003, the police intervened with considerable violence to break up a press conference outside the gates of Istanbul University by students protesting Higher Education Council disciplinary proceedings.

On March 30, 2004, gendarmerie intervened to disperse a press conference conducted by Süleyman Çelebi, president of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DÝSK), outside a factory in the Ümraniye district of Istanbul on the grounds that it was an “unauthorized gathering.” The press conference had been called to protest the sacking of thirty-three textile workers who had joined a trade union.

Demonstrations protesting the prison conditions for Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have been singled out for particularly severe treatment. Throughout 2003 and 2004 police have dispersed, frequently using violence, demonstrations and press conferences protesting the solitary confinement of Abdullah Öcalan. Three women from the women’s branch of the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP) complained that they were beaten and insulted by the police when they attempted to hold a press conference about Öcalan in Cizre, south-east Turkey, on November 5, 2003. During the same period, the police and local governors also stopped demonstrations and gatherings or arrested demonstrators because they attended in “local dress,” sang songs in Kurdish, or used names spelled with the letter “x,” which does not occur in the Turkish alphabet. While such demonstrations may be unwelcome and even offensive to the security forces and local authorities, provided that they are peaceful, they are protected forms of protest under the European Human Rights Convention and other international human rights instruments.

Human Rights Watch acknowledges that the police have a duty to prevent demonstrators from committing acts of violence against people or property. However, our investigations indicate that aggressive police interventions frequently provoked the breaches of the peace that they were supposedly intended to prevent. When police prevented members of the right wing Idealists’ Union, a non-governmental organization, from peacefully expressing their concern about the killing of ten members of the Turkmen minority in Northern Iraq on August 25, 2003, there was a violent confrontation which resulted in injuries to police and demonstrators.

The Role of the Courts
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court Eighth Chamber’s February 2000 ruling on press conferences, courts in Turkey tend to reflect the restrictive approach of police and governors toward freedom of assembly, and have imposed prison sentences on demonstrators who were peacefully protesting. On December 18, 2003, Istanbul Primary Court No 7 convicted representatives of the Emek (Labor) Platform, a group of trade unions and professional organizations, for “conducting a demonstration without permission.” The charges relate to an open-air press conference organized by the group on March 31, 2001 to protest a newly-introduced economic austerity program. The judgment stated that the police had warned the group that the gathering was “not permitted” but also confirmed that it had dispersed without incident. The court imposed sentences of one year and six months each on nineteen trade unionists. The sentences are currently the subject of an appeal before the Supreme Court.

Ongoing trials include the prosecution of 125 defendants at Bingöl Primary Court for offences under Law 2911. The defendants include the chairman of the Bingöl branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association Rýdvan Kýzgýn and the vice president of the association, Eren Keskin. The charges are based on an attempt to establish a “peace table” in Genç Avenue in Bingöl on June 16, 2003. Twenty-two members of Greenpeace are on trial at Iskenderun Primary Court under Law 2911 for a non-violent demonstration on February 24, 2003, to protest the opening of a power-station.

Özkan Hoþhanlý, the former president of the Malatya branch of Mazlum-Der, a human rights organization with a largely Muslim membership, is currently serving a fifteen month sentence in Adýyaman prison following his conviction by Malatya State Security Court on October 31, 2002, and the confirmation of the sentence by the Supreme Court on June 5, 2003, for a breach of Law 2911 in connection with demonstrations in Malatya in 1999 about the ban on female students wearing the headscarf. Although there were violent disturbances in Malatya arising from the demonstration, neither Özkan Hoþhanlý nor Mazlum-Der were involved in organizing the demonstration. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, Özkan Hoþhanlý was not implicated in the violence. He will complete his custodial sentence within the forthcoming days.

The Role of Universities
Universities commonly infringe upon their students’ right to freedom of assembly by suspending or expelling those who organize, or take part in, demonstrations and public meetings. Students who participate in protests directed against the Higher Education Council or university authorities are particularly targeted. In December 2003, Ismail Karak was suspended for a term by Gaziantep University for attending a demonstration against the Higher Education Council on November 6, 2003. In February 2004, Abdülselam Uygun was suspended for six months from Diyarbakýr Dicle University for attending a press conference on the university campus. Forty-three students were suspended by Kütahya Dumlupýnar University the same month for attending a demonstration against the Higher Education Council. On March 17, 2004, thirteen students at Malatya Ýnönü University were suspended for two terms for organizing a press conference on January 22, 2001 to protest university investigations initiated against them on various issues.

European Convention on Human Rights
The almost nightly television spectacle of the police beating members of the public who have gathered to express their concerns stands in sharp contrast with the government’s avowed commitment to improve respect for human rights in line with its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 of the European Convention states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others … No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The European Court of Human Rights has observed that:

    Freedom of assembly and the right to express one’s views through it are among the paramount values of a democratic society. The essence of democracy is its capacity to resolve problems through open debate. Sweeping measures of a preventive nature to suppress freedom of assembly and expression other than in cases of incitement to violence or rejection of democratic principles – however shocking and unacceptable certain views or words used may appear to the authorities, and however illegitimate the demands made may be – do a disservice to democracy and often even endanger it.

    In a democratic society based on the rule of law, political ideas which challenge the existing order and whose realisation is advocated by peaceful means must be afforded a proper opportunity of expression through the exercise of the right of assembly as well as by other lawful means. (Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden v Bulgaria, ECHR, October 2, 2001)

The Turkish government should issue a circular to relevant authorities:

  • clarifying and affirming the right to hold press conferences in public, to distribute leaflets and to arrange similar information opportunities without notifying the authorities in advance;
  • giving clear guidance that peaceful demonstrations should not be postponed or banned under any circumstances other than “in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” as required by article 11 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Such guidance must indicate how the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights has interpreted these permissible limitations on freedom of assembly;
  • clarifying the official notification requirements for demonstrations. These requirements should not be so onerous as to present an obstacle to the holding of a demonstration. In particular, the submission of identity information should not be necessary for organizations where legal responsibility is regulated by law. Where individuals are organizing a demonstration, notification of the names and addresses of the organizers should be sufficient. Governors should not impose a requirement for organizers to submit in advance the text of placards and slogans.

The Higher Education Council should issue guidance to university authorities not to suspend students for participating in peaceful protests on campus or elsewhere.

Human Rights Watch hopes that you will take urgent steps to clarify your government’s position on the need for full respect for the right of freedom of assembly.


Rachel Denber
Acting Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

Mr. Abdullah Gül, Foreign Minister, Ankara
Mr. Abdulkadir Aksu, Interior Minister, Ankara
Mr. Cemil Çiçek, Justice Minister, Ankara
Prof. Erdoðan Teziç, President, Higher Education Council, Ankara
Ambassador Hansjörg Kretschmer, EU representation in Ankara
Ms. Aslýgül Üðdül, Director for Political Affairs, Avrupa Birliði Genel Sekreterliði, Ankara
Mr. Martin Harvey, Acting Head of Turkey Unit, European Commission
Mr. Lawrence Silverman, Deputy Director, Office of Southern European Affairs, US State Department
Mr. Walter Schwimmer, Secretary General, Council of Europe
Mr. Luc van den Brande, Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly Monitoring Committee, Rapporteur for Turkey
Ms. Mady Delvaux-Stehres, Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly Monitoring Committee, Rapporteur for Turkey
Mr. Arie Oostlander, Rapporteur on Turkey, European Parliament.
Mr. Hüsnü Öndül, President, Human Rights Association, Ankara
Mr. Yavuz Önen, President, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Ankara
Mr. Yýlmaz Ensaroðlu, President, Mazlum-Der, Association for Solidarity with Oppressed People