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

© 2014 Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

(Beirut) - President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government are undermining the gains of the past decade, eroding human rights and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015. Over the past year, the government has taken unprecedented steps to exert executive control over Turkey’s judiciary, to muzzle social media, increase media and Internet censorship, and prosecute journalists.

“Victory at the polls is no excuse for the Turkish government and President Erdoğan to roll back the reforms of the past decade and erode the institutions that make Turkey a democracy,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A tamed justice system, enhanced and unchecked police powers, and a muzzled press have hurt Turkey’s citizens and dented its international reputation.”

In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.

The Turkish government’s moves during 2014 to set back human rights came in response to December 2013 corruption allegations implicating government ministers and their families. The allegations were revealed in the context of the power struggle between Erdoğan’s circle within the AKP and their former long-term ally, the Gülen (or Hizmet) movement, led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the government accuses of exerting an undue influence in state institutions and attempting to seize power.

A swathe of security measures were introduced after the World Report went to press to increase police powers of search and arrest, and broaden the circumstances in which lethal force may be used against demonstrators. Some of the measures became law in December while others have yet to be adopted by parliament. The changes are likely to worsen impunity for abuses by state officials against civilians. An example of government intolerance of demonstrations and criticism was the prosecution during 2014 on alleged coup plot charges of members of a football fan club who took part in the protests in 2013 over the government’s development plans for Gezi Park, in central Istanbul.

Over the year, there was an increase in prosecutions of individuals for “insulting” public officials for critical statements about government corruption or intolerance, and on occasion people were placed in pretrial detention for “insult.” At the end of the year, Hidayet Karaca, the head of Samanyolu TV, was imprisoned pending the completion of a criminal investigation against him on dubious terrorism charges.

More positively, negotiations proceeded with the imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, to end the decades-long armed conflict with the PKK. While the military and the PKK broadly maintained a ceasefire through 2014, about 50 civilians died in violent protests in early October in cities throughout the southeast. In the town of Cizre in late December to mid January 2015, six young men and boys died in shootings. Investigations into the circumstances of the deaths are ongoing. Trials also are proceeding for Kurdish political activists, journalists, students, and lawyers on widely abused terrorism charges such as “membership in an armed organization.”

The World Report also looks at Turkey’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers, including the more than 1.6 million from Syria; the lack of accountability for human rights violations by state officials during the 1990s and today; and the human rights dimensions of Turkey’s foreign policy.

“The Kurdish peace process is key to future progress on human rights in Turkey,” Sinclair-Webb said. “However, without a genuine commitment to protect human rights and rule of law of everyone in Turkey, the government’s peace efforts are unlikely to succeed.”