Last Update 23:16
Tuesday, 27 July 2021

INTERVIEW: 'A new draft law will preserve many of the abusive powers granted to the president,' warns HRW Turkey Director

Human Rights Watch Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb warns against the status of rights inside the country following Erdogan’s re-election last month

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Saturday 28 Jul 2018
Emma Sinclair-Webb
Human Rights Watch (HRW) Turkey Director, Emma Sinclair-Webb with a background picture of a Syriac village in southeast Turkey forcibly evacuated during the 1990s

“A draft law being rushed through Turkey’s parliament will preserve many of the abusive powers granted to the president and executive under the country’s recent state of emergency, which formally ended 18 July 2018,” Human Rights Watch said Monday.

The statement added that the proposed law will allow authorities under the presidency, for the next three years, to dismiss judges and all other public officials arbitrarily.

“It also would allow the authorities to restrict movement within Turkey, ban public assemblies and allow police to hold some suspects for up to 12 days without charge and repeatedly detain them in the same investigation,” the statement read.

According to HRW, the bill does not provide adequate court oversight of use of these powers, or meaningful redress for victims where use of these powers violates their rights.

A few days before Erdogan was sworn in, the Turkish government issued a new emergency decree law to dismiss more than 18,000 public servants. How do you read this as HRW’s country director for Turkey?

The state of emergency in Turkey was not renewed after 18 July, though the signs are that a new law about to be pushed through parliament will equip the president and authorities with extraordinary powers that conflict with any claim that they want to protect human rights.

On 8 July, the government took advantage of the powers it had under the state of emergency with a decree that arbitrarily dismissed over 18,000 police officers, military, prison guards, civil servants connected to various ministries, and university lecturers.

This comes on top of the over 110,000 already dismissed this way. We assumed that was the last large mass dismissal, but clearly the government still wants to hang on to the power to purge any perceived opponent from the civil service because the new law will also allow them such powers.

To spell out what this may mean, just imagine that every judge in the country will think twice about issuing a verdict that might displease the government, for fear of being dismissed and prosecuted.

In the majority of cases, the government regards those people dismissed as supporters of the US-based Fethullah Gulen and part of a group it refers to as a terrorist organisation responsible for the July 2016 failed military coup in Turkey.

But among those dismissed on 8 July and earlier there were also some leftist academics and others who have been critical of government policy.

So far, a commission set up to examine people’s appeals against dismissal has only restored 1,300 public officials to their jobs and rejected the applications of another 18,000. All the other cases are pending before that commission.

People whose cases are rejected by the commission — the vast majority— are allowed to appeal to an administrative court, but it is hard to imagine that people will be genuinely compensated for having been arbitrarily fired, having their passports cancelled, and most unable to get jobs in the private sector because they have been publicly blacklisted.

The impact on families has been huge. Many spouses of dismissed public officials also lost their jobs in private companies just because the employer was afraid that employing such people could be risky to the company. In short, hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives have been ruined by these purges.

And on top of that we have the criminal proceedings against most of those dismissed over the past two years.

Tens of thousands of them were also arbitrarily jailed pending trial. All are on trial under draconian terrorism laws.

For association with the Gulen movement, you have countless examples of school teachers getting prison sentences ranging from seven to 10 years for membership of a terrorist organisation, but absolutely no evidence of any involvement in activities that could remotely be described as terrorism – for example, involvement in deadly attacks, logistical support for such attacks, incitement to violence and involvement in a conspiracy to commit violent acts.

Nor is there evidence they were involved in the failed coup attempt. Labelling tens of thousands of people terrorists despite the fact that they have committed no violent act is a trend in Turkey, as it is in other countries, including Egypt.

Recently six Zaman journalists were sentenced to prison for up to 10 years for “membership in a terror organisation” and similar charges. Can you comment on the legal process here (the nature of the charges, the evidence, due process)? How do you see the state of journalistic freedoms in the near future?

The conviction of the columnists and journalists for the now shuttered Zaman newspaper is part of the same trend of going after anyone seen to have had associations with the Gulen movement that Turkey regards as a terrorist organisation responsible for the July 2016 coup.

The question of evidence of any crime is irrelevant to the courts and such cases are little more than show trials.

Most of the journalists convicted in this trial spent long periods in pre-trial detention — periods of almost two years — and two remain in jail. Several of them are in their sixties and seventies. The whole process has been very cruel.

It should be remembered that although Zaman newspaper was indeed closely associated with the Gulen movement, there was again no evidence that the journalists convicted did anything other than write critical commentary about the government or work for a newspaper critical of the government.

Convictions like those in this trial should ring bells with the Egyptian public as well. They demonstrate how the courts when under political control can hollow out the whole notion of justice.

In Turkey, there are over 170 journalists and media workers in prison, making it the world leader in jailing reporters. The crackdown on the media is directed at journalists and media outlets critical of the government and the president, and these range across the political spectrum.

Most Turkish television news channels are now owned by government-friendly companies. There are a few independent news websites, but these regularly get closed down or their content blocked.

Increasing numbers of Turkish nationals and even quite a few foreigners have been arrested in Turkey over social media posts. What is your prognosis on the state of social media freedoms in Turkey’s “new era”?

There are thousands of prosecutions of people in Turkey for social media postings under charges such as “insulting the president” and “spreading terrorist propaganda”.

People can get jailed for their tweets or Facebook postings and end up spending a few months in pre-trial detention pending their trial. And checking people’s past social media posting — from years ago — is another way to find something against them.

Countless Kurdish students and young people in Turkey have received very high sentences for tweets enthusiastically supporting the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Kobane in Syria back in 2014.

How do you think the new balance of power between parliament and the executive will affect human rights?

The new presidential system consolidates power in the office of the president without sufficient checks on that power.

The president’s influence over the appointment of the top judiciary and council that administers the appointment of judges and prosecutors is huge.

The president also has powers to issue presidential decrees and there is a risk that these may become a way of bypassing parliament. Parliament’s role is much reduced, but it is still the main law-making body.

As mentioned before, now that the state of emergency has been lifted, a slew of new powers will be introduced which will in many ways mimic the state of emergency. I expect the current repressive atmosphere to continue.

How is Turkey able to continue in all these rights violations unpunished? What sanctions could European countries bring to bear against Turkey, a NATO member and EU candidate?

Turkey is a country with a history of democratic governance and institutions which have amounted to more than parties or individuals securing victory at the polls.

The version of democracy was a deeply flawed one with power concentrated in the hands of a secular patrician elite and the military periodically derailing the democratic process with coups.

In a complete reversal, a party and leader supported by the pious majority emerged and were ready to overturn the old system and centralise power in the presidency and distribute favours to their own clients. There is widespread recognition in the leading EU countries that the Turkish president’s project to change the entire system of governance has dismantled democratic institutions and established an autocratic regime.

However, half Turkey’s population reject this path and Turkey’s society is dynamic. The future is unpredictable and it will be hard to impose a fully autocratic form of governance.

The EU has embarked on a largely transactional relationship with Turkey over migration, and the EU accession process will not progress. As for NATO, the last few days have shown that Turkey is not the only threat to the alliance.

What instruments does HRW have in place to monitor rights violations in Turkey?

Human Rights Watch works in 90 countries around the world. Our main aim is to conduct impartial research and produce credible findings and recommendations for how to end human rights abuses, strengthen the justice system and uphold the human rights of ordinary people.

In all countries we work on, our primary aim is to engage constructively with the government and leaders of that country and present them with our findings and recommendations.

In Turkey we have freely conducted research in the country for several decades and met with authorities.

A few months ago, we met with senior officials at the Interior and Justice Ministries to discuss steps to eradicate torture in police custody. We hope to continue such dialogue with ministries and with the presidency in the months ahead.

How do you see the future of minority rights in Turkey, especially Kurds?

The protection of minority rights is a key challenge for Turkey. Just three years ago there were bold steps towards a peace process to end the decades’ long conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting a rebel insurgency.

This has been reversed in a tragic way with a return to conflict between the Turkish military and the PKK, former parliamentarians from the democratically elected pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) arbitrarily jailed, and local democracy in the Kurdish southeast entirely dismantled with all elected mayors removed from office and detained.

Turkey is far from coming to terms with the legitimate demands of its minorities — above all the Kurdish population — for recognition of their cultural rights and identity. Military and “security” solutions have not proved a substitute for political steps to protect the rights of a minority and respond to Turkey’s growing rights crisis.

Emma Sinclair-Webb joined Human Rights Watch in 2007. She has worked on issues including police violence, accountability for enforced disappearances and killings by state perpetrators, the misuse of terrorism laws and arbitrary detention.

She was researcher on Turkey for Amnesty International from 2003-2007, and previously worked in publishing as a commissioning editor on books on history, culture and politics in the Middle East and southeast Europe.

Sinclair-Webb was co-editor (with the late Mai Ghoussoub) of Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Turkey’s growing rights crisis 

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