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23rd Apr 2021

Turkey at 'crossroads' to authoritarian rule, Amnesty says

  • Erdogan (c) in Brussels earlier this year (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

British-based rights group Amnesty International has painted a disturbing picture of EU-aspirant Turkey as a country on the way to authoritarian rule.

Its report, published on Tuesday (10 June) - one year after mass protests which broke out in Gezi Park, Istanbul - warns that thousands of people are at risk of prison for exercising their right to freedom of assembly, while police officers are getting away with acts of severe brutality.

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It says that after 12 years in power the ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “is perhaps at a crossroads”.

“It can choose to acknowledge legitimate grievances and reach out to those who have become disaffected. Or it can seek to bolster its support amongst … loyalists through the politics of blame and polarisation. Prime Minister Erdogan has chosen the latter course. His default reaction to these crises has been to seek to silence or crush his critics”.

It also notes the crackdown is creating “a minority who turn up to demonstrations expecting violence and prepared to fight back”.

The Gezi events saw 3.5 million people take to the streets in 79 out of 81 Turkish provinces in the “biggest anti-government protest … in a generation”.

Smaller rallies have taken place since. But in March this year, 1 million people attended demonstrations after the death of a boy injured in 2013 in what Amnesty called “an unprecedented outpouring of anger at police violence, impunity and a government perceived to be protecting the perpetrators.”

Looking back to Gezi, it cites victims and eyewitnesses as saying police fired tear gas canisters directly at people as “weapons”.

On one day in Ankara they fired 5,000 canisters at a crowd of 20,000.

Policemen snatched and beat people who were, at times, passers-by. They fired live ammunition. They threw wounded people onto burning barricades and, in one incident, gouged out a man’s eye.

Hakan Yaman, a 37 year-old father of two, who was grabbed by police in Istanbul, told the rights group: “Around five police officers came over and began hitting me repeatedly on around the head. One of them put a hard object into my eye and gouged the eye out. By then I was lying down, without moving. I heard one of them say ‘this one is finished, let’s completely finish him off’. They dragged me about 10 to 20 meters and threw me onto a fire. They left and I dragged myself out of the fire.”

Despite the “thousands” of injuries and “hundreds” of criminal complaints against them, just seven policemen have faced investigations next to more than 5,500 prosecutions of protesters.

Amnesty said the anti-police cases “have proceeded slowly, if at all, with minimal diligence, if any, and have often been undermined by deliberate attempts to withhold, obstruct, or tamper with evidence.”

At the same time, anti-terrorism laws are being cited against many government critics, who face between three and 15 years in prison if convicted.

The prosecutions, as in the case of five men linked to the Taksim Solidarity group, often rest on flimsy evidence.

The Taksim Solidarity defendants are being prosecuted mainly on grounds of tweets sent from the group’s account documenting the events. Some of the tweets cited by prosecutors give locations of makeshift medical facilities, while the people who provided medical care to the wounded are also facing jail.

“The prosecutions … illustrate once again the failure to distinguish between criminal activities and those protected by the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”, Amnesty said.

With Erdogan notorious as the world’s leading jailer of journalists, the British group highlighted his attack on Turkish people's access to independent information.

It says that 153 reporters were injured by police during last year’s clashes. Foreign correspondents “were subjected to unprecedented pressure” including “anonymous death threats”, while more than 80 Turkish journalists were forced out of their jobs for refusing to toe the Erdogan line.

It notes that subsequent criminal proceedings against some reporters show that “defamation and incitement to hatred legislation are used to silence government critics in Turkey” and “illustrate the authorities’ severe aversion to dissent”.

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