(Istanbul) – The Ankara Prosecutor’s office in Turkey has opened a criminal investigation into the Ankara Bar Association after it filed a complaint against the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate for a homophobic speech, Human Rights Watch said today.
The case revolves around a Friday sermon about the Covid-19 pandemic on April 24, 2020 by Ali Erbaş, an imam who heads Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, which administers mosques and personnel for Turkey’s Sunni Muslim majority. During the sermon he blamed homosexuality and premarital sex for the spread of HIV. Erbaş urged Muslims “to join the fight to protect people from such evil.” Following criticism of Erbaş by rights groups and bar associations in Ankara, Izmir, and Diyarbakir, several top Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, voiced their support for Erbaş’s remarks and condemned the Ankara Bar Association for criticizing Erbaş’s speech.
“It is extremely concerning to see some of Turkey’s top government representatives appearing to endorse hateful remarks by the head of the religious affairs directorate,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey’s government has an obligation to protect everyone from hate crimes and discrimination, and should not tolerate statements by officials that encourage hate crimes and target LGBT people and those living with HIV.”
Turkey’s government should ensure that all of its representatives refrain from making statements that stigmatize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and people living with HIV, and that put them at risk of harassment and attacks, Human Rights Watch said. Criminal investigations into those who speak out against homophobic statements by state officials should be dropped immediately.
The Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint against Erbaş with the Ankara chief prosecutor’s office on April 27, 2020 on the grounds that Erbaş’s sermon constituted public provocation to hatred and hostility (art. 216/2 of the Turkish Penal Code). In response, the Ankara prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the Bar Association on the grounds of “insulting the religious values adopted by a part of the public” (art. 216/3 of the Turkish Penal Code) for its statement against Erbaş.
The justice minister endorsed the criminal investigation by posting a tweet after the prosecutor opened the case condemning the Ankara Bar Association’s statement. The Justice Ministry has to grant permission to prosecutors to proceed with prosecuting lawyers and bar associations. The Diyarbakır Chief Prosecutor’s Office filed a similar investigation on the same grounds against the Diyarbakır Bar Association. The websites of both Ankara and Diyarbakır Bar Association have been inaccessible since April 28. Both bar associations told Human Rights Watch that their websites had been targeted, but it was unclear by whom.
The Turkish authorities have obligations under international and domestic law to ensure that the rights of the entire population are upheld and protected without discrimination. Fulfilling that obligation means they should censure, not support, officials who make hateful speeches against LGBT people and any other group at risk of harassment, Human Rights Watch said.
The Turkish authorities have systematically prevented LGBT events and the annual Pride Parade in Istanbul since 2015. Nineteen students from Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (METU) remain on trial for organizing and attending a Pride Parade on campus in May 2019.
“These outrageous criminal investigations show that the government and their prosecutors have little, if any, interest in defending the rights of LGBT people and ending stigmatization, but are obsessed with silencing critics, including of hate speech,” Williamson said. “The investigations should be dropped immediately, and authorities should focus on encouraging tolerance, nondiscrimination, protection from hate crimes, and upholding privacy for everyone.”