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Police violence and local government restrictions are undermining freedom of assembly and the reform process in Turkey, Human Rights Watch said in an open letter today to the Turkish deputy prime minister Abdullah Gül.

“Police violence against demonstrators and unwarranted restrictions on freedom of assembly aren’t compatible with Turkey’s EU bid and its goals on human rights,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “The government needs to affirm the right to protest before the issue begins to tarnish Turkey’s progress toward EU membership.”

As part of its ongoing legislative reform efforts, in July 2003 Turkey adopted amendments improving the Law on Public Meetings and Demonstrations (law 2911). Nevertheless, in the intervening nine months, police dispersed at least 105 peaceful public gatherings, press conferences and demonstrations, and arrested 1,822 demonstrators. Human Rights Watch said that police used violence to break up gatherings on thirty-one occasions—beating demonstrators and spraying them with pepper gas.

“The Turkish government is gaining international credit for recent legislative progress on human rights in many areas including freedom of assembly,” said Denber. “But when Turkish citizens attempt to gather publicly to voice their concerns and criticisms they frequently meet official restrictions and police brutality.”

Human Rights Watch said that the vast majority of incidents arise from small gatherings for open-air press conferences. In some provinces, governors and police permit such gatherings, while in other provinces police disperse them as “unpermitted demonstrations.” A February 2000 Supreme Court ruling suggests that gatherings for press conferences do not require organizers to notify local authorities, nor to obtain their permission.

Human Rights Watch today wrote to deputy prime minister Abdullah Gül, who is also minister for human rights, urging the government to clarify the questions around press conferences by issuing a circular affirming the right to hold press conferences in public and to distribute leaflets without notifying the authorities in advance.

“The lack of clarity about what is a press conference and what is a demonstration is resulting in the prosecution and even ill-treatment of people gathered to speak their minds,” said Denber. “The government should address the confusion with a clear policy that backs the right of peaceful assembly.”

In December 2004, the EU is due to decide whether Turkey has sufficiently fulfilled the so-called “Copenhagen criteria” on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, to proceed with its candidacy for EU membership.

“What Turkish civil society has to say is bound to influence the European Commission when it makes its December decision,” said Denber. “Human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations are likely to be much more enthusiastic about the reform program if they aren’t roughly moved on by heavily armed police officers when they come out to address the public.”

Turkish law now entitles local governors to postpone a demonstration only if there is a serious risk that it will result in criminal acts. In reality, public political activity continues to be subject to excessive restrictions. Governors and the police have banned and broken up demonstrations and gatherings because people attended in “local (Kurdish) dress,” sang songs in Kurdish, or used names spelled with the letter “x,” which does not occur in the Turkish alphabet. In some provinces, governors require so much paperwork from organizers (including in some cases, records of past convictions and lists of proposed slogans) that it presents a substantial obstacle to the right to demonstrate.

On March 30, 2004, gendarmerie intervened to disperse a press conference conducted by Süleyman Çelebi, the president of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK), 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. In the town of Bingöl in southeast Turkey, the authorities are using the law on demonstrations to prosecute 125 people, including Rıdvan Kızgın, president of the local branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association and the national vice president of the association, Eren Keskin, for attempting to set up a public information table on June 16, 2003, to publicize peace protests. University authorities are also conducting investigations and imposing suspensions on students for participating in non-violent demonstrations.

Demonstrations protesting the prison conditions for Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have been dealt with particularly severely. In recent months police have dispersed scores of demonstrations and press conferences protesting the solitary confinement of Abdullah Öcalan, often using unwarranted violence.

“In the wake of fifteen years of bitter internal conflict, these demonstrations may be unwelcome and offensive to security forces and governors,” said Denber. “But provided that such gatherings are peaceful, they are protected forms of protest under the European Human Rights Convention.”

The Human Rights Watch letter also calls on the Turkish government to limit any restrictions on public demonstrations to those mandated by the European Convention on Human Rights, and to clarify the official notification requirements for demonstrations. The letter also calls on the Higher Education Council to issue guidance to university authorities not to suspend students for participating in peaceful protests on campus or elsewhere.

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