Police block protesting lawyers during a demonstration against a government draft bill to reduce the authority of Turkey’s leading bar associations. July 10, 2020, Ankara. © 2020 Tunahan Turhan / INA Photo Agency / Sipa via AP Images.

(Istanbul) – The Covid-19 pandemic in Turkey has enabled the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deepen autocratic rule by silencing critics and rapidly passing restrictive new laws to limit dissent, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.  
 
In 2020, Turkish authorities used the pretext of the pandemic to ban demonstrations by opposition parties and government critics and to target critics of the government. When introducing an early release program to ease prison overcrowding, the government deliberately excluded thousands of arbitrarily jailed prisoners from eligibility and rushed in new laws to deepen censorship of social media platforms and curb the authority of bar associations vocal on Turkey’s rule of law crisis. At the year end, the government passed a new law enabling arbitrary restriction of civil society organizations and threatening the right to freedom of association.   
 
“The Covid-19 pandemic became a pretext for the Erdogan government to double down on autocratic rule and stamp out criticism and opposition at the expense of uniting the country during a public health crisis,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international focus on Turkey’s foreign policy should not be allowed to overshadow the assault on democratic safeguards at home, which accelerated during 2020.” 
 
In 2020 the Erdogan government’s main tensions with the European Union were focused on migration, gas reserves, and contested maritime boundaries in the East Mediterranean rather than Turkey’s domestic human rights record.  
 
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.  


The continuing detention in 2020 of prominent figures including Osman Kavala, a human rights defender; Ahmet Altan, a writer; Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, former co-chairs of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP); and many other former parliament members, mayors, and other officials from that party is evidence of Turkey’s lack of an independent judiciary and that prosecutorial and court decisions are indexed to the Erdogan government’s political decisions. Alongside prominent figures held for years in arbitrary detention are thousands of people also held on bogus terrorism charges for alleged links with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which Turkey deems a terrorist organization. 
 
Turkey remains host to the highest number of refugees in the world, with an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country, in addition to asylum seekers from other countries. In February-March 2020, Turkey’s government opened its border with Greece encouraging migrants and refugees to travel into the European Union. Greece responded by violently pushing back refugees and migrants it intercepted.