ISTANBUL (Hurriyet Daily News)–Turkey’s record on protecting human rights was mixed in 2010, with arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of speech remaining black marks, according to a new report by a well-regarded international human-rights watchdog.
While Turkey has made progress on some human rights issues, with constitutional amendments opening the way for further reform, it has fallen short on others, according to the report by Human Rights Watch. The report can be downloaded here.
The group identified arbitrary detention, prosecution and conviction under terrorism laws as well as restrictions to the freedoms of speech and expression as ongoing problem areas. It added that Turkey had achieved “little concrete progress toward realizing its 2009 plan to improve the human rights of Kurds in Turkey.”
“The main fields of concern regarding the Kurdish issue remain persistent,” Ozturk Turkdogan, chair of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, told the Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Monday.
According to Turkdogan, recent constitutional amendments had brought no changes in this regard and Turkey is not observing a number of principles defended in international conventions. The issue of not being able to speak in one’s mother tongue in the courts, in commercial contracts and in religious observances is especially troublesome, he said.
“It is confusing, actually, as the TRT Kurtce [public broadcaster TRT 6] broadcasts in the Kurdish language, but public institutions obstruct Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin from using their own language,” Turkdogan said. He added that the government had failed to keep its promise in 2009 to write street signs in Turkey’s southeastern provinces in both Turkish and Kurdish.
The Human Rights Watch report also said “individuals continued to be prosecuted and convicted for non-violent speeches, writings and participating in demonstrations,” which considerably restricts the freedoms of expression, assembly and association in Turkish society.
“I believe that [media outlets or individuals working in the media] must be given fines [if they have used their rights disproportionately] in proportion with their actions,” Durmus Tezcan, a lawyer who has represented Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights and a professor at Istanbul Kultur University, told the Daily News on Monday. Tezcan said keeping journalists under arrest was against the principles laid down in the European Convention for Human Rights, which considers fining journalists a more suitable punishment in cases where violence has not been verbally or physically applied.
Turkdogan also said legislation and its execution by the courts are problematic in cases where journalists are brought to court, adding that Turkish judges usually make decisions that are not in compliance with the principles set out in international conventions, especially the European Convention on Human Rights.
The report also said long-term restrictions on access to websites such as YouTube represented an acute restriction on the freedom of speech. It also said that “leftist and pro-Kurdish political newspapers and journals were subject to arbitrary closure.”
The right of assembly was another concern raised in the report: “[H]undreds of officials and activist members of the pro-Kurdish party DTP [Democratic Society Party] and its successor BDP [Peace and Democracy Party], were prosecuted during the year, including for [having] links to the Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, a body associated with the outlawed [Kurdistan] Workers’ Party, or PKK, leadership. Seven mayors, several lawyers and activists are among 151 people who are being tried in Diyarbakır for alleged separatism and KCK membership.”
“The practice of holding suspects charged with non-violent crimes in prolonged pre-trial detention continued,” the report added.
“Even human-rights activists and NGO representatives, who are in no way related to violence, are being kept under arrest,” Turkdogan said, adding that this violated their right to a fair trial. “The difference between those who use force and those who do not is not made yet. Our Constitution [and related laws] must also be amended in this direction.”
The report said, however, that Turkey had made progress in its protection of human rights through recent constitutional amendments. It has worked toward lifting immunity from prosecution for military and public officials for crimes committed during and after the September 12, 1980, coup, reducing the role of Turkey’s military courts, changes to judicial appointments, the right of individual petition to the constitutional court and the creation of a new ombudsperson institution.
“Although Turkish legislation is of higher quality than many other countries, much remains to be done in its implementation,” Tezcan said.
Of the most striking conclusions of the Human Rights Watch Global Report 2011 was the fact that “Too many governments are accepting the rationalizations and subterfuges of repressive governments, replacing pressure to respect human rights with softer approaches such as private ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation.’”
Although Tezcan agreed the ECHR had pushed for important progress in the field of human rights in Turkey through its binding decisions, he said most of the reforms were completed in terms of legislation, and thus more attention had to be paid to implementation.
“It is time now for large countries to abide their [international relations] policies to human rights,” Turkdogan said.