Turkish government set back country's human rights record by decades – HRW

The Turkish government has set back Turkey's human rights record by decades and flagrantly defies international human rights law, Human Rights Watch stated in its World Report 2022 on Thursday.

The report said that the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been "targeting perceived government critics and political opponents, profoundly undermining the independence of the judiciary, and hollowing out democratic institutions." 

Among tens of worsening conditions of the country, the report drew particularly close attention to Turkey's withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, in 2021. HRWlamented this move as "a major reversal for women's rights." Turkey was the first country, also led by then prime minister Erdoğan's government, to sign the convention a decade ago.

The report also noted that Turkey's refusal to release imprisoned human rights defender and civil society leader Osman Kavala "prompted the Council of Europe to begin the process for sanctioning the government's persistent defiance of a binding European Court of Human Rights judgment ordering his release. Turkey is the second country in the history of the Council of Europe to face such a sanctions process."

(Ahval editors chose philanthropist Osman Kavala as the person of the year for 2021, the fourth year of his time behind bars. Kavala has become a symbol of political prisoners in Turkey, having unjustly lost his freedom.)

The report is divided into several parts. The first covers the Turkish government's growing pressure on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The report emphasized that "while most news outlets are owned by companies with close government links, independent media in Turkey mainly operate via online platforms but are subject to regular removal of content or prosecution for news coverage critical of senior government figures and members of President Erdoğan's family or deemed to constitute an offense under Turkey's highly restrictive Anti-Terror Law." 

It noted that there are currently 58 journalists and media workers in prison or serving sentences for terrorism offenses because of their journalistic work or association with media.

2021 was also the year when major social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter complied with a 2020 legal amendment requiring them to set up offices in Turkey. The report said that this new development is also "raising concerns that they may in future be forced to increase their compliance with government censorship in order to avoid heavy fines and other penalties."

The HRW's Turkey segment also spent a large part on human rights defenders and how these leaders are under pressure. The report noted that Turkish authorities "continued to use terrorism and defamation charges to harass rights defenders, and to violate their right to assembly. The Court of Cassation has yet to review the 2020 convictions for membership of a terrorist organization and aiding and abetting terrorism of Taner Kılıç, the former chair of Amnesty International Turkey, and three others for their participation in a human rights education workshop."

According to the same report, the Turkish government has not made much progress "to suggest… in investigating the rising allegations of torture and ill-treatment in police custody and prison reported over the past five years. Few such allegations result in prosecution of the security forces, and a pervasive culture of impunity persists."

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