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Tensions between the Turkish government and the country’s Kurds have risen to dangerous levels in the wake of last week’s suicide bomb attack, blamed on the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS). But the response of Turkey’s authorities carries serious risks for human rights.

It began when a suicide bomber killed 31 Kurdish and Turkish activists in the border town of Suruç last week, a horrendous crime that Turkish officials blame on ISIS. The activists had gathered to announce a trip they were planning to help rebuild Kobani, Syria, a city heavily populated by Kurds that lies across the border from Suruç.

Riot police chase demonstrators during a protest in central Istanbul, Turkey, July 20, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The attack was quickly followed by the killing of two Turkish police officers, an act the armed group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for, describing it as “retaliation” for the Suruç bombing. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-president of the pro-Kurdish HDP party has blamed the government over the attack, saying that the “state turned a blind eye to ISIS mobilization” in Turkey. Violent clashes between protesters and security forces have taken place in several cities in Turkey following the bombing. At least three civilians and one police officer have died.

The Turkish government has launched a major response aimed at ISIS and the PKK, conducting massive counterterrorism raids across the country, blocking websites, and banning and dispersing protests.

In the past week, more than a 1000 people have been arrested, most over suspected links to the PKK, and a smaller number over alleged ties to ISIS and radical leftist groups. While the charges and evidence are not yet clear, the Turkish authorities have a track record of using over-broad terrorism laws to silent dissent, including by detaining and prosecuting peaceful Kurdish activists as though they were members of the outlawed PKK.

The government has also obtained court orders allowing them to block dozens of websites and Twitter accounts for “promoting terrorist propaganda.” The overwhelming majority of these sites feature pro-Kurdish content. Turkey’s poor record of internet freedom, and the government’s past willingness to block Twitter and YouTube to silence critical voices, raises concerns that the recent court orders could be the start of a clampdown on free speech online.

The restrictions on protests, including the ban on a planned “peace march” in Istanbul last Sunday, may be less clear cut given the violent nature of some recent protests. But the government’s frequent resort to bans on peaceful protest, and the excessive use of force by police against protestors – including during the Gezi protests in 2013 – mean that these new bans will need careful scrutiny in the days to come.

Turkey faces real security threats, widespread unrest, and its peace process with the PKK is hanging by a thread. The Turkish authorities should ensure that its response to these challenges respects freedom of speech and association, the right to peaceful protest, and protects citizens from violence by the state as well as armed groups. Otherwise a bad situation is only likely to worsen. 

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