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Letter to Turkish Government concerning Harassment of Lambda Istanbul

Human Rights Watch writes to express concern regarding the recent incursion by Istanbul city police into the headquarters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) human rights organization Lambda Istanbul. We urge the Turkish government to respect the right to freedom of expression and association, and to halt harassment of legitimate human rights organizations.

On April 7, between twelve and fifteen men in plain clothes entered the Lambda Istanbul Cultural Center, identifying themselves as members of the Financial and Moral Police; an officer from the City Department of Associations accompanied them. The police presented a warrant, but members of Lambda Istanbul told Human Rights Watch that they were not allowed to review it thoroughly. Police refused to answer questions about why they were raiding the Center.

The attorney for Lambda Istanbul subsequently found the warrant was issued under article 227 of the Criminal Code, whereby “[a]ny person who encourages another person to become a prostitute, or facilitates prostitution, or acts as a go-between or provides a place for such purpose is punished with imprisonment from two years up to four years, and also a punitive fine up to three thousand days.” Beyoðlu Prosecutor Serdar Gür had demanded and received the warrant from the Magistrates' Court of Beyoðlu No. 2. The attorney also told Human Rights Watch that he received information that Lambda Istanbul had been under surveillance since the beginning of March.

The attorney informed Human Rights Watch that the officers seized records of Lambda Istanbul’s official decisions, a list of its members, its registers of moveable property, and receipts, bills and invoices. The authorities did not make a list of the confiscated material, as ordered by law.

Lambda Istanbul has defended the Turkish LGBT community since its creation in 1993. It operates a telephone helpline to counsel LGBT people and raises awareness of rights through cultural, educational, and political activities. It has actively lobbied for legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Its charter defines as its main aim “to support all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to adopt equality as a value, to realize their inner selves and to help bring peace and welfare; to guide LGBT individuals in becoming more professional, more active and responsible towards society and in social matters.”

These are legitimate objectives. Nevertheless, Lambda Istanbul has suffered harassment by Turkish authorities for the past year. The office of the Governor of Istanbul demanded its closure in early 2007, claiming the name and objectives of the group were offensive to Turkish “moral values and its family structure.” In July 2007 the local Prosecutor’s Office rejected the complaint, but the governor’s office took the case to a higher court, the Beyoðlu Sutluce Court of First Instance No. 5, which heard the case in July 2007. A fifth hearing before the Court is scheduled for April 17.

This is not the first time Turkish authorities have illegitimately targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations. In September 2005, the Ankara Governor’s Office accused KAOS-GL, an Ankara-based organization, of "establishing an organization that is against the laws and principles of morality." The then deputy governor, Selahattin Ekremoglu, claimed that KAOS-GL’s objectives contravened the Turkish Civil Code. Similarly, the Ankara Governor’s Office attempted to close the human rights group Pembe Hayat (Pink Life) in July 2006, claiming to prosecutors that the association was against “morality and family structure” without specifying why. In both cases the prosecutor dropped the charges.

Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is party, set forth the right to freedom of association. States may restrict this freedom only on certain prescribed grounds and only in particular circumstances. States are given a "margin of appreciation" in deciding what is "necessary," but the necessity must take into consideration tolerance and pluralism as basic elements of a democracy. Restrictions must be appropriate and proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.

The language of the Law of Associations does not expressly restrict the formation of organizations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. However, authorities in Istanbul and Ankara have shown they will attempt to use the neutral formulations of the law to restrain these legitimate organizations from doing their work.

We urge the Turkish government to stop the harassment of Lambda Istanbul, and send a clear message to the police and judicial authorities to accept the legitimacy of the work of Lambda Istanbul and other LGBT organizations. We further urge you to undertake training for all criminal-justice and police officials on international human rights standards, particularly those in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sincerely,

Scott Long
Director
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Program

c.c.
Michael Leigh, Director Enlargement Directorate General, European Commission
Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe

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