US State Department Releases Human Rights Report on Turkey

ISTANBUL (Hurriyet)–The US State Department on Thursday released its 2009 Human Rights report, including in it an account of the many human rights violations taking place in Turkey last year.

The annual report acknowledged some improvement, but noted continued reports of torture cases, unlawful killings by security forces and poor prison conditions.

“The overly close relationship of judges and prosecutors continued to hinder the right to a fair trial. Excessively long trials were [also] a problem,” the report said. “The government limited freedom of expression through the use of constitutional restrictions and numerous laws and through the application of tax fines against media conglomerates.”

The State Department also noted limitations on Internet freedom, noting that telecommunications providers were ordered to block access to certain Web sites on numerous occasions.

“Some religious groups were restricted from practicing their religion openly, owning property and training leaders,” the report said. “Violence against women, including honor killings and rape, remained a widespread problem. Child marriage persisted, despite laws prohibiting it. Some cases of official corruption contributed to trafficking in persons for labor and sexual exploitation.”

Freedom of the press

Noting that the country’s Finance Ministry had levied nearly $3.9 billion in tax fines against the Dogan Media Group, Turkey’s largest media group, the State Department said the fines nearly equaled the total value of the company’s assets.

“The fines raised some observers’ concerns, because the group’s editorial line had been considered critical of the government and the prime minister,” it said. The State Department also noted the October progress report of the European Commission, which said the fines “undermine the economic viability of the group and therefore affect the freedom of the press in practice.

“Other observers described the fine as having a chilling effect on journalists and reported that the government was using it to silence opposition,” the State Department added. “The government maintained that the fine, which observers alleged could cause the corporation to go out of business, was a legitimate exercise of the Finance Ministry’s taxation authority and that it had no political motivation.”

The report cited positive developments as well, including a substantial decrease in the number of prosecutions and convictions based on Article 301, which prohibits insults to the Turkish state; the formal launch of a 24-hour Kurdish-language state television station Jan. 1; broadcasts in Armenian on state television for half an hour twice a day starting April 2; new regulations as of Nov. 13 allowing for 24-hour private television stations to broadcast in languages other than Turkish, new prison regulations in November allowing prisoners to speak languages other than Turkish with their visitors; and approval in September of a university department to teach the Kurdish language, among other “living” languages.

Discrepancy on torture

The State Department also took notice of a discrepancy between official and non-official figures on torture. According to a report by the Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Presidency, three torture and 54 cruel-treatment cases were reported in the first six months of the year. However, according to the Human Rights Association, there were 655 reports of torture in the first nine months of the year, an increase over the previous year.

“A number of human-rights observers claimed that only a small percentage of detainees reported torture and abuse because most feared retaliation or believed that complaining was futile,” the report said.

In regard to the ongoing Ergenekon arrests over alleged military plots to topple the government, the U.S. State Department said a total of 250 people had been indicted by year’s end. “Some opposition politicians, members of the press and critics of the government considered many of the indictments to be politically motivated,” it said. “Others claimed that the arrests had reduced the fear and pressure on journalists and human-rights activists across the country by removing threats against them.”

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