(Berlin) Human rights activists, independent journalists, academics and others in Turkey are sounding the alarm bells over a dramatic worsening of human rights conditions in the country, and are urging Germany to listen.  

On my recent visit to Istanbul, activists told me they hoped Germany, as a key European Union member, would take a strong role in pressing the Turkish government to end its crackdown. They are worried that with the EU giving priority to co-operation to prevent refugees from leaving Turkey for the EU, it has been unwilling to seriously address Turkey’s serious human rights violations in talks with Ankara.

The accounts of the activists and others highlight the urgency. Nil Mutluer, head of sociology at Istanbul’s Nişantaşı University, told me she fears for her job simply because she signed a petition. The document, endorsed by over 1,000 academics, calls on the government to end its conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s southeast, where armed clashes between security forces and the PKK have led to rising civilian deaths and widespread suffering.

Rather than listen to an influential group of intellectuals, President Erdoğan and then the government labelled them “terrorists,” triggering harassment of the petitioners, including a criminal investigation, and putting universities under pressure to investigate and even dismiss them. “We sign so many petitions, but the government evidently wants to stop all public debate over what’s happening in Kurdish areas.” Mutluer told me.

Across town at P24, a media freedom group, Yasemin Çongar, one of the founders, is equally concerned. She says many media are facing unprecedented measures to halt independent reporting. With the concern on her face reflected in candle-light  as we met during a power outage, she told me that  33 journalists are in prison for their work, that many  gag orders have been imposed to stop coverage of sensitive issues, and that dozens of journalists have been fired at the government’s behest. “We thought a couple of years ago it could not get worse,” she told me. “Now it certainly has.”

Recent events involving Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s few remaining independent papers, are proof. We met senior staff in the office of the editor, Can Dündar. He is not at his desk but in prison, because of a story on alleged secret arms shipments to Syria the paper published last May. “Can was doing his job as a journalist, nothing more” said Doğan Satmış, a journalist at the paper. Eight Cumhuriyet staff have been killed because of their work in the last 30 years. At the time of our meeting the charges against Dundar were not known but Satmış said he feared a “heavy indictment,” On January 27 Dundar and a colleague were handed charges that could lead to life sentences.

Those I met said the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey and in the EU was serious, but that this should not overshadow these human rights issues.

Germany says it is alarmed about human rights developments in Turkey. A senior German Foreign Ministry expert told members of parliament last week of serious concerns about press freedom and about the conflict in the southeast. In recent months over 200 civilians had been killed and over 700 injured, the expert said.

It is time for Germany to ensure that these issues are a political priority for the EU before the crisis in Turkey worsens. After all, an unstable Turkey is unlikely to be a place refugees will want to remain and rising human rights violations and escalating conflict in the southeast could even lead to new refugee flows from Turkey itself.