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Turkey’s New Low on Human Rights

Condemning other governments' human-rights violations does not absolve Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the gross abuses his own government continues to commit. On the contrary, the current effort to put 16 civil society activists in prison for life places Erdoğan firmly within the ranks of the leaders he decries.

NEW YORK – On March 4, a Turkish court accepted indictments against 16 leading civil-society figures for their alleged role in the Gezi Park protests in 2013. In pursuing these charges, the Turkish government is taking its already abysmal human-rights record to a new low.

The 2013 protests began as an environmentalist-led effort to prevent the government’s demolition of a small park in the center of Istanbul. While they did end up triggering broader protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian governance, the demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful, and Turkey’s constitutional court has issued several rulings affirming their legality.

Yet Erdoğan’s government falsely insists that the protests constituted a coup attempt. Most of the alleged protest leaders were taken into custody a few weeks ago, interrogated, and then released without charges, though under judicial control. But prosecutors are seeking life sentences against all 16 who were indicted.

Among them is Osman Kavala, a well-known 61-year-old businessman and philanthropist, who has languished in prison since October 2017, with charges only now being brought against him. Kavala, whom I happen to know personally, is a mild-mannered man, whose business, inherited from his father, has included investment in a leading cell phone company in Turkey.

Kavala’s philanthropy has focused on minority rights and cultural issues. Among the projects he has initiated and financed is a cultural center in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Reflecting Kavala’s principal philanthropic concerns, the center serves the Kurdish minority, which has endured decades of persecution by the Turkish government, including cultural repression, such as the prohibition of the Kurdish language in schools and other public settings, and restrictions on radio broadcasts of Kurdish music. My visit to the cultural center several years ago focused on a project in which young people were given cameras with which to document their daily lives.

Kavala also chairs Anadolu Kültür, which organizes artistic and cultural activities in economically underdeveloped areas of Turkey. Founded in 2002, Anadolu Kültür seeks to foster openness and tolerance, including by encouraging dialogue among different groups. When Kavala was arrested at an airport in Istanbul in 2017, he was returning from Gaziantep, a city on the Syrian border, where he had been working to establish arts and cultural centers that would benefit Syrian refugees in Turkey.

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Other civil-society leaders who are now potentially facing life in prison also work in the philanthropic and non-profit sector. Yiğit Aksakoğlu, who has been in detention for three months, represents a prominent Dutch foundation that supports early childhood education in many countries. Gökçe Tüylüoğlu, whom I also know personally, was Executive Director of the Open Society Foundations’ office in Turkey from 2009 to 2018. Hakan Altinay, another indictee, was her predecessor. Since leaving the Open Society Foundations, Altinay has held academic posts, including at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution. Like some of the others who have now been indicted, he was detained briefly and interrogated last November, then released, but subject to a travel ban that prevented him from leaving the country.

Imprisoning these civil-society leaders for their role in legal protests amounts to a breach of their human rights. Yet, coming from Erdoğan, who is no stranger to using the legal system as a tool of repression, it is not surprising.

As it stands, The number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is the highest in the world. Some 50,000 people have been imprisoned for alleged terrorist offenses, and more than 130,000 have been dismissed from public-sector posts for alleged association with terrorist groups.

Ironically, Erdoğan has loudly denounced other governments’ human-rights abuses. He has been the primary critic of Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who presumably ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He has also condemned China’s detention of about a million Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic minority that speaks a Turkic language – in so-called re-education centers.

These are legitimate and important human-rights concerns. But calling attention to them does not absolve Erdoğan of the gross abuses his own government continues to commit, including its effort to imprison 16 well-known, peaceful civil-society activists for the rest of their lives. Erdoğan can rail against Saudi and Chinese leaders all he wants, but his track record places him firmly within their ranks.

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