In its annual human rights report, released on March 11, the State Department documents egregious violations by the Turkish government, including arbitrary killings, suspicious deaths of persons in custody, forced disappearances, and torture. Along with similar findings in last year’s report, the latest assessment shows that systematic violations of human rights continue with impunity under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry dismissed the new report, which covers the 2019 calendar year, as a “politically motivated” product of “unfounded accusations based on ambiguous sources.” Ankara similarly dismissed the findings of last year’s report as “unfounded allegations, dubious information and biased interpretations.”
The abuses committed under Erdogan highlight the enormous gulf between Turkey’s constitutional provisions for the protection of human rights and the grim reality on the ground. Although Article 17 of the Turkish Constitution bans torture, the State Department found that in May 2019 alone, as many as 100 persons – including former members of the Turkish Foreign Ministry – were tortured or otherwise mistreated while in police custody. According to the testimonies of victims interviewed by the Ankara Bar Association, “authorities blindfolded them and made them kneel, dragged them across a room, hit them on the head and body with a baton, and threatened that unless they ‘talked,’ batons would be inserted into their rectums.”
The report also shows that the backsliding in Turkey’s democracy and human rights continues to affect Kurdish citizens disproportionally. Since the abortive 2016 coup that led Erdogan to declare a state of emergency, at least 4,920 members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been imprisoned on baseless charges related to terrorism and political speech, including former HDP co-chair and former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, seven lawmakers, and 48 mayors. Ankara lifted the state of emergency in 2018, but Ankara continues to persecute pro-Kurdish politicians. As of December 2019, the Interior Ministry has suspended 28 HDP mayors in Kurdish-majority provinces, replacing them with government-appointed “trustees.”
The Turkish government’s reliance on arbitrary detention, show trials, and pretrial detention as a form of summary punishment continues to draw criticism at home and abroad. Since 2016, the Turkish government has detained 540,000 persons suspected of involvement in the coup, with 30,000 convicted and 70,000 currently awaiting trial. These politicized detentions and prosecutions constitute a de facto purge of Erdogan’s political opponents, both real and imagined.
In response to growing criticism of this breakdown in the rule of law and due process, the Turkish government introduced a Judicial Reform Strategy last May and passed judicial reform legislation in October. The International Commission of Jurists declared the measures to be insufficient, warning that “any judicial reform will be meaningless if implemented in the context of a judiciary which has been taken control of by the executive,” alluding to Erdogan’s iron grip on Turkey’s courts.
During remarks previewing the State Department’s new report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named China, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela as among the worst violators but chose not to highlight Turkey’s abuses. This represents a missed opportunity to raise awareness about how a NATO member state’s persistent abuses are undermining the shared values on which the alliance rests. Washington should condemn Ankara for its egregious human rights violations and start issuing Global Magnitsky sanctions against the architects and perpetrators of arbitrary killings, forced disappearances, or systematic torture in Turkey.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Philip Kowalski is a research associate. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, Philip, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan and Philip on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @philip_kowalski. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.