Turkey: Imprisoning Dissidents while Bidding for EU Membership

At a rally in Ankara over the summer, held by the women’s branch of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced:

"From now on, there will be no fight for freedom of faith, freedom of thought and freedom of opinion. Everyone will be free in their own faith [and] be free to live accordingly. [Everyone will be at liberty to] say whatever he [or she] believes in."

Erdogan did not hide the fact that his statements at the August gathering were part of his “preparations for the 2019 local elections,” scheduled for March 31. The Turkish president did, however, hide the fact that his words were completely false. To illustrate, let us review some of the human-rights abuses in Erdoğan’s Turkey that took place in one month, December 2018, alone.

On December 19, the 40th anniversary of the Maraş Massacre — in which 111 Alevis were slaughtered in the southeastern city of Kahramanmaraş — the governor of Kahramanmaraş declared a ban on commemorative events for the victims. The reason cited for the prohibition — similar to that imposed in 2017, ahead of the 39th anniversary of the massacre — was to avoid a “disruption of public order.”

On December 17, Hamide Yiğit, a columnist at the left-wing opposition news site Sendika.org, was sentenced to seven and a half months in prison for “openly denigrating the state and government of the Republic of Turkey,” by sharing on social media the cover of the third edition of her book, AKP’nin Suriye Savaşı (“The AKP’s Syria War”). Among other “criminal” posts by Yiğit — who was previously sentenced to more than a year in jail for “insulting the president” — was the statement: “A free press cannot be silenced.”

Access to Sendika.org itself was blocked on December 5 — for the 62nd time — by Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA). To circumvent the block, it used a different web address, sendika63.org. On December 6, the site announced that the ICTA had lifted the block.

Sendika.org applied in 2017 to be listed in the Guinness World Records book as “the most-blocked website.”

As of December 14, at least 169 members of the media remained in Turkish prisons, either in pre-trial detention or serving sentences, according to a report by the Platform for Independent Journalists. Many of these were arrested for articles and social media posts deemed “insulting” to Erdoğan. Berivan Bila, a journalism student at Karadeniz Technical University, for instance, was detained on December 6 — after police raided her home and seized her computer, mobile phone, newspapers and books — over an op-ed she had penned in 2017, titled: “School of Journalism — Lesson one: Journalism is not a Crime.”

On December 19, Prof. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for being one of 2,212 signatories to an “Academics for Peace” petition in 2016. The petition, titled “We will not be a party to this crime,” called on the Turkish government to cease its violence against the Kurds in southeastern Turkey. The assaults have resulted in the destruction of large portions of many predominantly Kurdish towns.

According to the Bianet News Agency, Fincancı is one of 429 academics who, as of December 19, have stood trial since December 5.

On December 21, Serhat Parlak, brother of imprisoned journalist Ferhat Parlak, was detained by Diyarbakir police — and then fined before being released — for “provoking the public” and engaging in “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Parlak’s crime? Hanging banners on behalf of his brother, who was “targeted by police and soldiers for news reports he has written about the military curfews imposed on the town of Silvan in 2015 and the corruption at the municipality.”

Serhat’s and Ferhat’s father, Yaşar Parlak, also a journalist, was murdered in Diyarbakir in 2004. To this day, his killers remain “unidentified”.

Three events scheduled for December 19 at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara were canceled by the president of the university and by the Ankara governorship. On December 20, METU students received an e-mail from the administration explaining the move. The e-mail read, in part:

"During the current electoral process in our country, the panel discussions and/or meetings to be held by political parties, communities, institutions or organizations outside our university or by the groups that are not official communities in our university will not be allowed."

The METU administration also shut down the university’s “Media Group,” which reported on recent bans of student events and demonstrations.

During the week of December 3-10, Turkey’s Interior Ministry investigated 310 social media accounts and took legal action against 238 users for offenses such as “insulting state officials” and hindering the “state’s indivisible integrity.”

On December 11, at the 5th International Cybercrimes Workshop in Ankara, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said:

"We formed virtual patrols working 24/7 for the purpose of investigating criminal content on the internet... Within this context, about 110,000 social media accounts have been investigated in 2018; the users of 45,000 accounts have been identified, and 7,000 have been caught and sent to judicial authorities."

All of the above clearly show that Erdoğan was not telling the truth when he declared, just five months ago, that everyone in Turkey would enjoy “freedom of faith, freedom of thought and freedom of opinion.” In fact, Turkish jails and prisons are so packed with people imprisoned for expressing their beliefs, that the government just announced it will be building 228 more prisons over the next five years to accommodate the overflow.

Simultaneously, Turkey is stepping up its decades-long bid to become a member of the European Union. As part of this bid, Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul announced on December 11 that he would be unveiling a new strategy for judicial reform. Under no circumstances should the EU allow itself to be duped by such a transparently deceptive and deceitful move.

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