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A demonstration outside a courthouse in Istanbul, Turkey in solidarity with the staff of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet on trial over alleged support to terrorist groups, July 24, 2017.   © 2017 Reuters
(Istanbul) – Turkey increased restrictions on the media, political opposition, and human rights defenders during 2017, on the back of a very narrow referendum, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. Turkey also introduced a presidential system with insufficient democratic checks and balances against the president’s abuse of power.

“Everywhere you look, checks and balances that protect human rights and rule of law in Turkey are being eroded” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The move to a presidential system, the ongoing state of emergency, and charges against opposition lawmakers have all weakened parliament, the courts are under ever tighter government control, and the crackdown on media and civil society deepens.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

The government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held a constitutional referendum in April under restrictions on rights, including those imposed during a state of emergency that had been in place for nine months, undermining its fairness. Voters narrowly approved the changes.

The government exerted enormous pressure over Turkey’s courts and prosecutors. Legitimate efforts to prosecute those responsible for the 2016 coup attempt were undermined by widespread misuse of counterterrorism laws. Several major politically motivated trials of journalists on terrorism-related charges began in 2017, and the government also targeted human rights defenders.

The chair of Amnesty International Turkey, Taner Kilic, remains in detention facing a trumped up prosecution for membership in a terrorist organization. And a businessman and civil society leader, Osman Kavala, remained in pretrial detention and under investigation for bogus allegations of involvement in the coup attempt.

The government deepened its assault during 2017 on the Kurdish political opposition in parliament, and on local government in the southeastern part of the country. Members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including party leader, Selahattin Demirtas, remain jailed for over a year, pending trial on terrorism charges. The government has taken over almost all municipalities in the southeast, depriving people in the region of their chosen representatives.

Under the state of emergency, the government has failed to provide redress for the over 100,000 civil servants dismissed, as well as hundreds of media outlets, associations, and other institutions closed down. Also covered in the chapter is the rise in allegations of torture in police custody, the human rights implications of continuing conflict in the southeast, Turkey’s role as the host of the highest number of refugees in the world and the role of human rights in its relations with the EU.

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