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A Turkish court’s decision to disband a human rights organization defending lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people shows that official repression poses a serious threat to democratic rights and freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 29, 2008, the Third Civil Court of First Instance in the Beyoðlu district of Istanbul ruled in favor of a complaint brought by the Istanbul Governor’s Office, and ordered the closing of Lambda Istanbul, a group advocating for LGBT people’s human rights. The complaint argued that Lambda Istanbul’s objectives are “against the law and morality.” The court failed to address these claims in its judgment and reached a decision that the association should be closed on purely procedural grounds. The ruling is the latest in a series of legal measures targeting organizations promoting the rights of LGBT people.

“The judge’s arbitrary decision highlights the prejudiced proceedings,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, who attended the hearing in Istanbul. “If the authorities can close one organization on procedural pretexts, all of civil society is in danger.”

The judgment referred to article 17 of the Law on Associations and article 60/2 of the Civil Code, which taken together provide for closure of associations if they do not “remedy errors and deficiencies” in their statutes. But the court’s judgment did not specify these “deficiencies.” The proceedings made no reference to these articles before this last hearing on May 29. Neither the Governor’s Office nor the judge or prosecutor raised any such deficiencies in the statutes during previous hearings.

Lambda Istanbul’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch they will receive a fuller explanation when the court produces a full verdict in the coming weeks. Lambda plans to appeal the decision and the case will be referred to the Court of Cassation.

The Office of the Governor of Istanbul demanded Lambda Istanbul’s 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 the courts. The court conducted six hearings before issuing the May 2008 verdict.

In October 2007, Human Rights Watch researchers met with Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler about the case. Although a department under his authority had initiated the complaint, he stated that the case was out of his hands and a matter for the judiciary. Human Rights Watch researchers and members of Lambda Istanbul met again with Deputy Governor Mustafa Altintas on May 23, 2008. Paradoxically, in view of the ongoing attempt to close the organization, he affirmed the commitment of the Governorate and its affiliated Provincial Human Rights Board to cooperate with Lambda Istanbul in future projects to promote LGBT people’s rights.

“The Turkish authorities must decide whether nongovernmental organizations are fair game for harassment, or full partners in a free society,” said Sinclair-Webb. “Promotion of tolerance and respect for civil society by the Turkish government is key.”

In another recent incident, on April 7, 2008, police raided the offices of Lambda Istanbul.
The police justified the incursion by claiming the organization “encourages” and “facilitates” prostitution.

Turkish authorities have targeted other LGBT organizations as well. In September 2005, the Ankara Governor’s Office accused the Ankara-based group KAOS-GL of “establishing an organization that is against the laws and principles of morality.” Similarly, the Ankara Governor’s Office attempted in July 2006 to close the human rights group Pembe Hayat (Pink Life), which works with transgender people, claiming to prosecutors that the association opposed “morality and family structure.” In both cases, prosecutors dropped the charges.

Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party, requires the Turkish authorities, including the judiciary, to protect freedom of association. Any restriction on this right requires convincing and compelling justification.

On May 21, 2008, Human Rights Watch presented the 123-page report, “‘We Need a Law for Liberation’: Gender, Sexuality, and Human Rights in a Changing Turkey”. The report documents a long and continuing history of violence and abuse based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The report calls on the EU to monitor respect for LGBT people’s basic rights as a barometer of Turkey’s human rights progress.

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