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.


Turkey's Anti-Terrorism Law Tramples on Human Rights


On December 3rd, demonstrations were held in Istanbul and 40 provinces of Turkey, protesting lengthy pre-trial detentions, mass custodies and arrests, and called for the abolishment of Turkey’s draconian anti-terrorist law. In Istanbul alone, some 2000 persons, including the Deputy Chair of the CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party, engineers, architects and doctors joined in the demonstration.

As we noted in a previous blog, thousands of Turkish citizens have been imprisoned and await trials—some for over two years–under this law. Those arrested and imprisoned have even included lawyers defending others who were incarcerated.

In its most recent Annual Human Rights Report, Amnesty International again underlined the violations of freedom of speech carried out under the anti-terrorism law.