Supporters and relatives of human rights defender Osman Kavala and 15 others on trial for allegedly organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests queue outside the Silivri Prison court house, Istanbul, June 24, 2019. Thousands are arbitrarily detained on terrorism charges in the vast prison complex. 

© 2019 Hüseyin Aldemir/Reuters
(Istanbul) – The prolonged and arbitrary detention of journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians blights Turkey’s claims of being a country that respects human rights and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

In 2019, Turkey’s authorities unsuccessfully attempted to reverse the result of the March 31 greater municipal election in Istanbul, which the government candidate lost, but went on to cancel election results in the mainly Kurdish southeast by removing and detaining elected mayors, also from an opposition party, in major cities. Turkey also restricted the right to peaceful protest and assembly, arbitrarily banned gatherings by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups and others, carried out enforced disappearances, and failed to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment in police custody.

“Keeping government critics locked up and cancelling the results of local elections won by opposition party candidates demonstrates the lengths to which the Erdogan presidency will go to undermine human rights and democracy in Turkey,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey silences dissent and has once more denied its Kurdish voters their chosen local representatives.”   

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

Turkey’s presidency forced a controversial rerun of the March 31, 2019 local election in Istanbul metropolitan municipality, which was won by opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu. In southeastern Turkey, the authorities have removed 32 elected mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and detained 23 of them, accusing them of terrorism links.

Among government critics held in prolonged and arbitrary detention are Osman Kavala, a human rights defender; Ahmet Altan, a writer; Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı, elected mayor of Diyarbakir; and Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, former chairs of the People’s Democratic Party.

Thousands of government critics have been prosecuted on terrorism charges in unfair proceedings that lack compelling evidence, resulting in bogus convictions that demonstrate the presidency’s intolerance of legitimate dissenting opinion and the right to political association in the country. Thousands of ordinary people labelled supporters of the Fethullah Gülen movement or accused of links to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been detained without compelling evidence of their involvement in criminal activities.

Turkey remains host to the highest number of refugees in the world, with an estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees in the country in addition to asylum seekers from other countries. In 2019, in a reversal of policy, Turkey’s government increasingly signaled through deportations and political statements that Syrian refugees should be resettled in parts of northern Syria occupied by Turkish forces and their proxies, following a military incursion there in October.

Turkish-backed militias that control territory in those areas have committed violations such as summary killings and enforced disappearances of Kurdish civilians, including political activists and emergency responders, as well as looting and unlawfully appropriating property, and arbitrarily denying the right of Kurdish Syrians to return to their homes and properties.   

“Until Turkey’s presidency ensures the release of government critics from detention and respects elections won by opposition parties, there can be no return to the rule of law and democracy in the country,” Williamson said.