Turkish Human Rights and the Syrian Conflict

Recent tensions along the Turkish – Syrian border have captured the world’s attention and sparked tough talk in Ankara.  Turkey’s parliament has approved cross-border operations and the Turkish military has increased its presence on the border.  Artillery fire across the border is a daily event and, after Turkey stopped and searched two flights bound for Syria, each country has banned the other from using its airspace.  Yet, there is no war fever on Turkish streets.  Part of the reason for this lays in longstanding Turkish traditions; an important strand of Republican popular memory highlights the “foreign entanglements” of the Ottoman Empire as a mistake not to be repeated.  Just as important, however, are the ways in which the Syrian crisis is understood within the context of Turkish domestic politics and the on-going repression of activists and dissidents within the country.

Although Turkey has been touted as “a democratic model for the Middle East,” the reality is far more complicated.   This, after all, is a country where expressing unpopular views can land you in jail.  World renowned pianist, Fazıl Say, for example, is on trial for tweets deemed “insulting to religious values.”  Poking fun at politicians can also land you in big trouble.  Recently, a man was sentenced to more than a year in prison for making fun of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül.  Needless to say, there is no Turkish equivalent of the Daily Show.  The Turkish record on press freedoms continues to be “bleak” according to a recent review by Marc Pierini for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with many journalists in prison or on trial and a growing culture of self-censorship.


The Ghosts of Sivas: Justice Denied in Turkey

In Turkey, echoes of past crimes continue to call out for justice.  Under Turkey’s infamous Article 301 statute (in which it is a crime to “denigrate Turkishness”), Temel Demirer is still on trial for speaking publicly about the Armenian Genocide.  Almost monthly, new mass graves are found from the thousands killed by security forces during the 1980s and 90s.   As we have previously reported, investigations of these graves are slipshod and the perpetrators not held to account.

Emblematic of this grim pattern is the sad legacy of a massacre in Central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993 (A Turkish documentary on the massacre, with English subtitles, can be found here).  The events of that day are shocking still.