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Turkey: Anti-Terror Law Used Against Peaceful Activists

Turkey’s Reform Process at Risk as Three Kurdish Activists Go on Trial

The trial tomorrow of three Kurdish activists on anti-terrorism charges after they attempted to stage a peaceful protest near the Iraq border calls into question the Turkish leadership’s commitment to human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

To demonstrate that his government stands by the reform process, Prime Minister Erdoğan must ensure that Ibrahim Güçlü, Zeynel Abidin Özalp and Ahmet Sedat Oğur are released. These three Kurdish activists are scheduled to go on trial tomorrow in the eastern city of Diyarbakir. They were arrested on May 2 as they prepared to walk to the border of Iraq to peacefully protest the recent killings of civilians by security forces in southeastern Turkey and express their concern about tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurdish-led administration in northern Iraq.

The men are being charged under the Anti-Terror Law for “making propaganda for the PKK,” a charge that is all the more ironic in light of the fact that Güçlü has repeatedly and publicly condemned violence by the PKK (the Turkish acronym for the Kurdish Workers’ Party, a prominent illegal armed opposition group). All three are officials of Kurt-Der, a Kurdish association that Turkish authorities closed last month for conducting its internal business in the Kurdish language.

The detention and trial of these activists reflect a broader deterioration of Turkey’s human rights record in recent months, Human Rights Watch said. The Turkish leadership must reverse this negative trend and reaffirm its commitment to human rights reforms, underway since 1999 and driven partly by Turkey’s quest for European Union membership.

“This trial of peaceful Kurdish activists on anti-terrorism charges is a litmus test of Turkey’s commitment to reform,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anything short of releasing these men would serve a severe blow to the already frail reform process.”

Zeynel Ozalp, Sedat Ogur and Ibrahim Guclu in their yard at Diyarbakır D-type Prison. © 2006 Private

Human Rights Watch expressed strong concern about the disproportionate use of force by police dealing with protestors, particularly in the southeast, where 19 people have been killed in demonstrations and disturbances since November. The Turkish government must conduct swift investigations into the widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people detained during violence that erupted after funerals in Diyarbakir of PKK militants killed by Turkish security forces.

Draft amendments to the Anti-Terror Law are an ominous sign of the retrograde trend currently prevailing in Turkey, Human Rights Watch said. The proposed amendments would facilitate prosecutions like the one initiated against Güçlü, Özalp and Oğur, and would also remove safeguards for detainees that have significantly forced down the rates of torture and ill-treatment in Turkish police stations.

“These recent safeguards against torture constitute perhaps the single most significant human rights achievement in Turkey’s reform process so far,” said Cartner. “Now even this achievement is under serious threat.”

Political violence and the state’s violent response to it have sharply increased in Turkey since late last year, and there are troubling indications that elements within the military and armed opposition groups may be deliberately undermining the reform process.

Even the modest progress in human rights and the rule of law have brought clear benefits to ordinary Turkish citizens. But at the same time, government reforms such as easing restrictions on freedom of expression and partially recognizing the linguistic rights of minorities are removing the traditional raisons d’être of Turkey’s powerful security establishment and armed opposition groups like the PKK.

“Proponents of violence within the state and armed opposition groups like the PKK feel threatened by the reform process,” said Cartner. “Both camps are committing grave human rights violations in an effort to thwart the reform process and re-establish their authority.”

Human Rights Watch urged Prime Minister Erdoğan to show firm leadership in defending and carrying through the reform program.

“Prime Minister Erdoğan needs to affirm that he stands by the reforms of the past years and to present a detailed, confident picture of where the process is going,” said Cartner.

To clearly show his renewed commitment to reform, Erdoğan must ensure that Güçlü, Özalp and Oğur are released, abandon the proposed changes to the Anti-Terror Law, initiate urgent inquiries into the use of lethal and disproportionate force against protestors in Diyarbakir and the widespread allegations of torture during the arrests that followed, and remove the expression laws that curb open debate.


In October, the European Union opened negotiations for full membership with Turkey, a decision based on the country’s progress on reforms. Just one month later, gendarmerie intelligence officers were captured by local people after a bomb had been thrown into a bookshop in the southeastern town of Şemdinli, killing one man and wounding a number of others. The gendarmes were found to have another bomb identical to that used in the attack, and other apparently incriminating material.

When the prosecutor who indicted the officers proposed to explore whether the attack had been committed on orders from above, the military high command blocked the inquiry, and the prosecutor was expelled from his post and from the legal profession. A senior police officer who suggested the military might have been aware of the attack was also promptly removed from his post.

Street disturbances broke out in the wake of the Şemdinli bombing and most recently in March after funerals of PKK militants in Diyarbakır. Security forces responded with patent disregard for human life. They killed 19 people, including four children under the age of 10.

Armed opposition groups also escalated their violent activities, and civilians paid the price. Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for a bomb that exploded in an Istanbul internet café in February, killing the owner and injuring 15 other people, including three children. On May 3 a bomb in Hakkari wounded 21 people, including 11 children. Authorities in the region blamed the PKK for the attack and it has not denied responsibility. On April 2 youths rioting in Istanbul following the funeral of PKK militants threw Molotov cocktails at a city bus, causing a crash that killed three women.

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