(Istanbul) - Human Rights Watch unequivocally condemns the October 31, 2010 suicide bomb attack in Istanbul. It is essential that Turkey's response targets the perpetrators, not legitimate dissenters, Human Rights Watch said. A Human Rights Watch report released today documents the use of anti-terror laws to prosecute hundreds of Kurdish demonstrators as though they were armed militants, violating free expression, association, and assembly.
The 75-page report, "Protesting as a Terrorist Offense: The Arbitrary Use of Terrorism Laws to Prosecute and Incarcerate Demonstrators in Turkey," is based on a review of 50 cases. It describes 26 cases of individuals prosecuted for terrorism even though they had nothing to do with violence such as the October 31 attack, but simply for taking part in protests deemed by the government to be sympathetic to the outlawed armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Hundreds of Kurdish demonstrators are currently in prison pending the outcome of their trials or appeals against convictions. Others are serving long sentences that have been upheld by Turkey's top court of appeal.
"When it comes to the Kurdish question, the courts in Turkey are all too quick to label political opposition as terrorism," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "When you close off the space for free speech and association, it has the counterproductive effect of making armed opposition more attractive."
Over the past three years, courts have relied on broadly drafted terrorism laws introduced as provisions of the 2005 Turkish Penal Code, plus case law, to prosecute demonstrators. The courts have ruled that merely being present at a demonstration that the PKK encouraged people to attend amounts to acting under PKK orders. Demonstrators have been punished severely for acts of terrorism even if their offense was making a victory sign, clapping, shouting a PKK slogan, throwing a stone, or burning a tire.
The report calls on the Turkish authorities to amend the laws that have resulted in the arbitrary and punitive application of terrorism charges against demonstrators, to suspend ongoing prosecutions against demonstrators under these laws, and to review the cases of those already convicted.
Following domestic and international criticism over the prosecution on terrorism charges of children who attended Kurdish demonstrations, parliament amended the laws in July to quash such convictions and prevent the prosecution of children in courts that specialize in terrorism cases.
But the laws otherwise remain unchanged, including article 220/6 of the Turkish Penal Code, prohibiting offenses committed on behalf of the PKK, which is used to prosecute demonstrators in conjunction with article 314/2, criminalizing armed membership in the organization.
"Ending the prosecution under these laws of most child demonstrators was an important step forward," Sinclair-Webb said. "But allowing laws clearly aimed at terrorism to be used against adult demonstrators inflicts immense damage on free expression, assembly, and association in Turkey."
Among the cases cited in the report are the following. In each case, the court concluded that the individual joined the demonstration under PKK orders because of news reports in advance of the demonstrations saying the PKK urged people to take part.
- A university student, Murat Işıkırık, is serving a sentence of six years and three months for making a victory sign at the March 2006 funeral procession in Diyarbakır for four PKK members, and clapping during a March 2007 protest on the campus at Diyarbakır's Dicle University.
- A mother of six, Vesile Tadik, was sentenced to seven years for holding up a banner with a slogan "The approach to peace lies through Öcalan" during a December 2009 protest in Kurtalan, Siirt, against the prison conditions of the imprisoned PKK leader. Her case is on appeal.
- Medeni Aydın shouted, "Long live Chairman Öcalan" at a similar demonstration on the same day in Eruh, Siirt, and was sentenced to seven years. He is in prison pending his appeal. At the same demonstration Selahattin Erden was similarly punished for holding the edge of a banner with a pro-PKK slogan. He too remains in prison pending his appeal.
- Fatma Gökhan, Tufan Yıldırım, and Feyzi Aslan received sentences ranging from 10
years and 5 months to 11 years and 3 months for shouting slogans, making victory signs and throwing stones during a March 26, 2008 demonstration in Diyarbakır. Their convictions for "committing crimes on behalf of the PKK", punishable as "membership in an armed organization," have been upheld, and they will serve at least seven years in prison, with an ongoing retrial on other charges against them following a July 2010 amendment to the Law on Demonstrations and Public Assemblies.
The ongoing prosecutions of demonstrators are part of a wider crackdown on pro-Kurdish legal political parties for alleged ties to the PKK. On October 18, 152 members and officials of the Democratic Society Party, which was closed by the Constitutional Court in December, 2009, and its successor, the Peace and Democracy Party, which has 20 members in parliament, went on trial in Diyarbakır on charges ranging from separatism, to membership of an armed organization, to aiding abetting that organization.
The defendants include serving and former mayors, a prominent human rights defender, and lawyers. Six of the serving mayors and a human rights defender were arrested last December and have been detained since that time. Another 53, including the lawyers, have been detained since April 2009. Across Turkey around 1,700 party members are in detention facing trial on similar charges.
"The government should complete the task of reform by changing laws relating to adult demonstrators, to bring them fully into line with Turkey's human rights obligations," Sinclair-Webb said. "Throwing people in jail is no way to halt terrorism - or protest."