Despite significant recent rights reforms, the Turkish government should further improve its record in four key areas, Human Rights Watch said today. The European Union will assess Turkey’s progress toward fulfilling the human rights criteria required for opening of formal membership negotiations in December.

Human Rights Watch said that freedom of expression, torture and ill-treatment, freedom of assembly and internal displacement are all areas where important initial progress has been achieved but where significant additional efforts are needed to demonstrate lasting positive change. Human Rights Watch today outlined specific outstanding reforms, and emphasized the importance of close government oversight in achieving adequate implementation.

With only six months remaining before the European Union is due to decide whether to proceed to the next stage of Turkey’s candidacy, Turkish authorities made two historic advances last week with the first television broadcasts in minority languages, including Kurdish, and the release pending retrial of four Kurdish parliamentarians imprisoned since 1994 for their non-violent opinions. The past two years have brought substantial progress, including abolition of the death penalty, a marked reduction in the extent and severity of torture, and better protection for freedom of expression.

“The government and the judiciary deserve real credit for these achievements,” said Jonathan Sugden, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for Turkey. “If Turkey can maintain this momentum and take further bold action, June 2004 may well turn out to be the critical turning point for human rights in Turkey.”

Last week Human Rights Watch, together with other international and domestic human rights organizations (International Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, the Human Rights Association and Mazlum-Der) met with the ministers of human rights, justice, and interior at the government’s invitation, and pressed for urgent progress in the four key areas.

Human Rights Watch said Turkish officials needed to understand the extreme urgency about the outstanding tasks.

“The remaining human rights problems are serious,” said Sugden. “With the EU calendar so tight, the ministries will have to move decisively this summer if they want to guarantee success.”

In September the European Commission is scheduled to publish its regular report on Turkey’s progress toward meeting the political criteria for EU membership, which concern human rights, the rule of law and respect for minorities. In December, on the basis of this report, the European Council will decide whether Turkey should proceed to the next stage of its candidacy for EU membership.

“Receding political violence and the growth of civil society have helped to bring about recent reforms, but the EU accession process has clearly been an important engine for positive change,” said Sugden. “Most Turkish and international human rights organizations are keen to see this process continue and deepen. If the Turkish government ensures the necessary progress on the ground, then human rights organizations will be very keen to report it.”

Remaining Human Rights Reforms

Freedom of expression
It will be difficult to give a positive evaluation of performance in this area as long as Turkish citizens remain imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment for their non-violent opinions. Currently, journalist Hakan Albayrak is serving a fifteen-month prison sentence under the Law Protecting Ataturk (the founder of the Turkish republic) for an article he wrote for Milli (National) newspaper in 2000. Human Rights Watch said the prison sentence clearly contravenes the free expression provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Since the convention has been formally incorporated into Turkish law, a Turkish court can and should secure Albayrak’s prompt release.

Several other cases are proceeding against writers and politicians under article 159 of the Turkish Criminal Code, which imposes sentences of up to three years for insulting state institutions. Human Rights Watch called on the government to abolish article 159, and use its constitutional powers to supervise prosecutors and ensure that no further freedom of expression cases are brought this summer or thereafter.

Torture and ill-treatment
Turkish legal protections for detainees are better than in many EU member states, yet last year 340 victims applied to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation for medical attention for torture or ill-treatment inflicted during 2003, indicating that police and gendarmerie are failing to implement the safeguards reliably.

Human Rights Watch said that proper implementation could only be guaranteed by an aggressive program of supervision at three levels:

  • intense monitoring of police stations and gendarmeries by governors and prosecutors with public reporting of the frequency, methods and findings of these visits;
  • determined and immediate response whenever allegations of ill-treatment or torture reach the public arena. Administrative investigations to establish whether and why procedures have broken down at a particular police station should run parallel to any judicial proceedings against individual officers;
  • unfettered access for provincial bar associations and medical associations to visit places of detention and report their methods and findings.

Freedom of assembly and policing of demonstrations
In a welcome move last week, Interior Minister Abdullah Aksu informed Human Rights Watch that he had prepared a circular confirming that open air press conferences, public information tables, and leafletting were not subject to notification or permission requirements. This circular should considerably improve the situation with regard to freedom of assembly, and must be issued without delay.

The NATO summit in Istanbul on 28 and 29 June promises to be a demanding test of the Turkish police’s ability to carry out security duties while preserving full respect for human rights. Human Rights Watch stressed that it was essential that those units who will police the city are fully informed of international standards with respect to freedom of assembly and UN guidelines on the use of force, and that the city governor closely consults with groups intending to protest during the summit. The traditional strategy of herding political activists into custody over the period will not be acceptable.

Internal displacement
A decade ago during the height of the conflict with the armed illegal Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkish security forces drove more than a quarter of a million Kurds from their villages in the southeast, often by simply burning them out of their homes. The EU has expressly requested that Turkey address the situation of the displaced but the Turkish authorities have to date failed to establish a credible and transparent plan to help these people return in safety and dignity. While the government will not realistically be able to arrange for the tens of thousands of displaced to return within the year, a formal undertaking to collaborate with UN agencies in resolving the predicament of the displaced would provide a convincing assurance that there will be a genuine mechanism for return and that it will conform to international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2002, UN Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons Francis Deng examined the situation in Turkey and urged the Turkish government to collaborate with international governmental and nongovernmental organizations in tackling this problem. The government is currently in dialogue with UN agencies, but a year and a half since Deng’s recommendation, has still not initiated a formal partnership.