Turkey's new president Tayyip Erdoğan (front) attends a swearing in ceremony in parliament in Ankara on August 28, 2014.

(Istanbul) – Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is taking far-reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protestors, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

What Turkey Should Do

Rewrite the constitution to protect human rights;
End arbitrary prosecutions for nonviolent political activity, protest;
Repeal internet measures that facilitate censorship;

Prosecute state agents responsible for unlawful killings; end time limit on these prosecutions; and Protect domestic violence victims; prosecute their abusers

The 38-page report, “Turkey’s Human Rights Rollback: Recommendations for Reform”, outlines the rollback of human rights and rule of law in Turkey, linked to mass anti-government protests in 2013 and corruption allegations that go to the very heart of the government of the ruling AKP. Human Rights Watch tracked the government’s response to the recent developments and made concrete recommendations, focusing on four areas: strengthening the human rights context of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); reforming the criminal justice system; ending impunity for past and present abuses by state officials and for family violence against women; and ending restrictions on speech, media, Internet, and the rights to assembly and association.

“Over the past year, Erdoğan’s AKP has responded to political opposition by tearing up the rule book, silencing critical voices, and wielding a stick,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “For the sake of Turkey’s future and the rights of its citizens, the government needs to change course and protect rights instead of attacking them.”

The government’s repressive reflexes came to the attention of the world with the crackdown on the Gezi protests in Istanbul and other cities in May-June 2013, involving excessive use of force by the police, including the misuse of teargas. Thousands face legal proceedings for their participation in demonstrations, including 35 people connected with the Beşiktaş football team fan group, Çarşı, who face possible sentences of life in prison on alleged coup-plot charges. By contrast, few police officers have been held to account for deaths and injuries of protesters.

In December 2013, a major corruption scandal came to light when police announced arrests and criminal investigations in cases implicating senior government officials and members of their families. The scandal emerged out of a simmering conflict within the political establishment between the AKP and its former ally, the influential Gülen movement, led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.

The government responded by adopting laws that curb judicial independence and weaken the rule of law. The government also reassigned judges, prosecutors, and police officers. More recently it arrested police officers involved in the investigations, closed down two of the investigations, and intensified efforts to silence social media and traditional media reporting on the issues.

Three sets of changes in 2014 to Turkey’s already restrictive Internet law, the most recent in September, have increased Internet censorship. A revised law on the National Intelligence Agency (MIT), adopted in April, increases government surveillance powers and unfettered access to data, protects intelligence personnel from investigation, and increases penalties for whistleblowers and journalists who publish leaked intelligence.

On the positive side of the balance sheet, the government has made progress in negotiations with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, with significant potential to further human rights. Bolder steps to remedy the rights deficit for Turkey’s Kurds – the root cause of the conflict – could further human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups in Turkey. Conversely, the failure to address the larger rollback on rights risks unravelling the embryonic Kurdish peace process, Human Rights Watch said.

“The clampdown on rights and interference with the judiciary run counter to government’s positive commitment to a peace process with the Kurds and may well jeopardize it,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Protecting human rights and strengthening the rule of law for everyone is the best way to make sure the Kurdish peace process will succeed.”

The Turkish government should revise the 1982 constitution to protect human rights, Human Rights Watch said. It should repeal the statute of limitations for killings implicating state actors and laws granting immunity to members of the intelligence services and other public officials and civil servants.

It should also end the misuse of charges relating to anti-terrorism, crimes against the state, and organized crime against people engaged in nonviolent political activity and protest. The government should also provide effective protection to women who experience domestic violence and prosecute their abusers. It should also repeal abusive Internet laws and stop prosecuting people for nonviolent speech and journalists for publishing leaked intelligence.

On September 18, the Turkish government announced a fresh strategy for its bid to join the European Union, citing the importance of strong ties to Europe at a time of growing turmoil in neighboring countries and the wider region. The prospect of EU membership was an important engine for reform in the early part of the AKP’s first term a decade ago. The report recommends that the European Union governments publicly elaborate the criteria that Turkey must meet to open negotiations on the human rights aspects of EU membership requirements.

“As Turkey feels the heat of war in Syria and Iraq, Ankara has renewed its interest in closer ties to Europe,” Sinclair-Webb said. “But Turkey is unlikely to succeed in moving closer to Europe unless Turkey’s leaders take steps to reverse the rollback on rights and strengthen the rule of law.”