[REPORT] Erdoğan’s Menu to Crush Down the Opposition

[REPORT] Erdoğan’s Menu to Crush Down the Opposition

Margaux Seigneur

Like a ruthless chef who organises the preparation of his gustatory manipulations, Erdoğan is constantly developing new menus to enable his kitchen to retain the grandeur of his despotism. 

With a culinary taste particularly inclined towards conservatism, obedience and order are both to be respected along with religion. However, no one should forget the other members of the kitchen brigade who are under his command. In this kitchen, as in all the others, the hierarchy is systematic like a military brigade.

To assist, the chief has under his authority a sub-chief. Dressed in the robes of a magistrate, the latter, with his sharp knowledge of the constitution, ensures the application of the law in disputes that could undermine the authority of his chief. 

The chef de partie is directly appointed by the chef de cuisine. His task is simple. Ensure that the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) gastronomic combinations are respected wherever it is found, and in particular in the territories with rebel tendencies. 

Finally, it is the clerks who have the most ungrateful but also the most necessary task. As soon as one of the chiefs gives an order, issues a decree or sees its greatness diminished, the army of clerks complies. Arrests, violence, obstruction of the press and so on, the clerks’ army – protected by its helmet and shield – is meticulously efficient. 

Erdoğan distributed aşure to the troops of guardsmen. Source: researchgate.net

For more than a year, I was able to infiltrate Chef Erdoğan’s kitchen to investigate the rights of women and minorities (Kurdish, LGBTQ), the freedom of the press and the place given to political opposition groups. For more than a year, I witnessed the violent repression of every individual and group that dared to challenge the submission imposed by the leader endowed with his golden bulb. 

In order to analyse the authoritarian excesses of this Ottoman cuisine, we will use our recipe book; the Freedom House report on Turkey in 2022 which ranked the global freedom of Turkey; 32 out of 100, making it a not-free country. In this way, we will be able to analyse the way Erdoğan and his kitchen brigade annihilate the opposition. 

This investigative report is part of an effort to examine the dangers of democracy on the ground. To determine the damage, I have considered three freedoms that are necessary for the survival of a democratic republic; the condition of the political opposition, the freedom of the press and the freedom of thought and expression. Therefore, I present you with the following Erdoğan’s Menu to crush down the opposition

Starter: Crushing Down the Political Opposition  

As stated in the Freedom House- Turkey 2022 Report, “President Erdoğan and the ruling AKP assert partisan control over the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), judiciary, police, and media. They aggressively have used these institutional tools to weaken political rivals in recent years, severely limiting the opposition’s ability to build voter support and gain power through elections”

Indeed, the judges of the YSK, who oversee all voting procedures, are appointed by AKP-dominated judicial bodies. As the legal instrument has become an available tool for the ruling party to assert its monopoly; freedom of political participation is suffering the consequences. This lack of separation between politics and justice is particularly dangerous during election periods.

The Cancellation of the Istanbul Mayoral Election by the Supreme Electoral Board in March 2019

For the last fifteen years, the mayorship of Istanbul has been under the hand of Turkey’s ruling party, AKP. On 31st March 2019, the main opposition candidate; Ekrem Imamoğlu from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured the mayoral seat of the biggest city in the country. By losing this strategic municipality, the conservative political party suffered from the lack of its initial influence as well as its former base of support since President Erdoğan first became the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998. 

Ekrem Imamoğlu during a BBC interview regarding the election. Source: BBC/Mark Lowen

The AKP’s candidate; Binali Yildirim, had lost the mayoral seat by a very slim margin, which encouraged AKP’s suspicion regarding the transparency of the election. Thus, after having demanded a partial and a full recount of the spoiled ballots and despite credible evidence of irregularities, the Supreme Electoral Council considered the request of Erdoğan’s party positively and eventually announced the annulment of the election and its report on June 23. 

The YSK’s decision, which ruled by 7 against 4 in favour of rerunning Istanbul’s mayoral election, was based on four allegations which have led the court to conclude that over “30,281 voters in 108 ballot boxes were invalid”.

Subsequently, a new election was held. Imamoğlu won the second vote in June and became mayor of Istanbul, increasing his margin of victory over the AKP candidate.

Its Impact on the Turkish Democracy

The correlation between the defeat of the current ruling party and sudden suspicions of alleging widespread “irregularities” in the vote which lead to the cancellation of the result, has been seen as a cynical manipulation of Turkey’s Democracy. Indeed, it put into light the processes used by AKP, supported by the judiciary system, that enable circumventing the fundamental democratic principle. 

This decision, orchestrated by the AKP and taken by the YSK, is not an electoral procedure aimed at protecting a free and fair election but on the contrary an attempt to weaken the Turkish democratisation process

This lack of independence from the judiciary’s system to the executive represents a serious infringement of the principle of the check and balance system. An independent judiciary system and a healthy democracy are going hand to hand. If the impartial judiciary organ becomes corrupted, then the separation of power isn’t secured anymore and thus endangers democracy. 

Turkey appears to be a state in which power is held by a single political party. Anything that could change the monopoly of the ruling party is the incarnation of a threat that must be avoided. Thus, we can claim that the response addressed by AKP to counteract their defeat is an authoritarian one. This case study underlines the long way that remains to be done to secure the fundamental values of political freedom.

The Party to be Silenced: the People Democratic Party

Flag of the HDP in the headquarters of the polical party in Ankara. Credit image: Talal Ahmad
Flag of the HDP in the headquarters of the political party in Ankara. Source: Talal Ahmad

Members of the People Democratic Party (HDP), in Turkish: Halkların Demokratik Partisi, are currently facing politically motivated prosecutions. Despite the refutation of the HDP leaders and members, the government accused the second biggest opposition party of serving as a proxy for the designated terrorist organization; the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The HDP’s offices are regularly attacked by far-right and anti-Kurdish groupuscule. Since 2015, waves of purges have targeted the HDP resulting in the imprisonment of its leaders. In 2018, more than 26,000 HDP activists and supporters were imprisoned.

A Methodical Destruction 

  • In 2016, the government removed parliamentary immunity, and many HDP lawmakers including former co-chair Demirtaş have since been jailed on terrorism charges. 
  • In 2018, more than 26,000 HDP activists and supporters were imprisoned.
  • In March 2021, HDP lawmaker and prominent human rights activist Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu was expelled from Parliament after he was convicted on terrorism charges. He re-entered Parliament in July.
  • On 17th, June 2021 Deniz Poyraz lost her life after being tortured in the HDP building by a supporter of the far-right organization “Grey Wolves”. Deniz Poyraz was shot six times at the HDP headquarters in the Konak district of Izmir. On that day, a leadership meeting with around 40 people was due to take place in the building but was postponed at the last minute. HDP officials deduced that a massacre was planned. Pictures taken in the building immediately after the tragedy show that the murderer had fired a large number of bullets that could have killed all those expected to attend the meeting. 
Heavy demonstration in Izmir as the trial for Deniz Poyraz began. Source: Medyanews

HDP Co-Chair Pervin Buldan (in the middle of the picture) said that the bullets fired at Deniz Poyraz were aimed at killing the hope for peace and democracy in Turkey. She declared “today, a murderer is on trial, but the forces behind the attack, the sponsors and those who pushed him to pull the trigger have still not been identified.”

A journalist colleague who was present during the trial told me that she saw the murderer hugging and laughing with the police. Another journalist reported that one of the police officers who arrested Gencer spoke to him in a friendly tone, calling him “my brother”.

  • On June 2021, the Constitutional Court accepted a case to shut down the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The charges? A link to terrorism which threatens Turkey’s territorial unity.
  • On August 11th, 2022, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) provincial co-chairwoman in Şırnak Sabuha Akdağ was taken into custody on Thursday. Mezopotamya News Agency (MA) reported that Akdag, who went to the Şırnak Security Directorate on Thursday for a hearing, was subsequently taken into custody.
  • In Mid-August, 2022, Bianet news reported that a total of 49 members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) youth organisation were detained in raids that were carried out in five Turkish provinces. The reason for the detentions has not been disclosed yet.
  • On August 16th, 2022, a perpetrator attacked the People’s Democratic Party office in the Keçiören district of the capital city of Ankara.
  • On August 17th, 2022, Armenian HDP MP Garo Paylan filed a criminal complaint following allegations of an assassination plot against him two weeks earlier. “Even though it has been two weeks since a murder plot against me was revealed, neither the government nor the prosecutors have taken any action. For this reason, I have filed a criminal complaint. Let me note that those who protect criminals are accomplices” he declared before adding “We are heading towards the elections, and there is a power struggle in Ankara. Minorities have always been used as ‘bait’ in the power games within the state.”
Turkish police officers detain former pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) parliamentarian, Sebahat Tuncel on November 4, 2016, outside Diyarbakir’s courthouse. Source: AFP

In recent years, political and legal assaults on the HDP grew more robust than ever. The above examples highlight a reality that denies political and ideological plurality. Every day, violations and aggressions take place with impunity. Voices of denunciation are often silenced and judicial complicity makes any legal confrontation impossible. Hundreds of HDP politicians, including the party’s former co-chairs, are behind bars on terrorism charges. It must also be noted that the 65 HDP mayors elected in the Kurdish Southeast in 2019 have been replaced by appointed trustees of the AKP as Ebru Günay pointed out during our interview.

An Institutionalised Pressure Denounced by HDP Spokeswoman

On November 30, 2021, I went to the headquarters of the People’s Democratic Party in Ankara. Accompanied by a translator and a photographer, we entered the highly secured building where Ebru Günay was working before heading to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Elected deputy for Mardin in the Turkish Grand National Assembly in June 2018 on behalf of the HDP party, she is currently its spokeswoman. 

Ebru Günay during our interview. Credit image: Talal Ahmad
Ebru Günay during our interview. Source: Talal Ahmad

Ebru Günay was arrested in 2009 due to an investigation into the activities of the Kurdistan Communities Union and prosecutes during the KCK trial in which the defendants were accused of supporting terrorist organisations including the PKK. She was released after five years in April 2014. 

The Struggle Against the State’s Pressure

“The HDP is under a lot of pressure both politically and legally, with many attempts to bring charges against us before the courts. The HDP is in a very difficult and sensitive position, especially with the Kobane trial starting in November. But the HDP has not stopped working. This shows that the party which is currently governing; the AKP, cannot finish us politically. Therefore, they are attacking us by all other means they have, including the courts, in the hope to be successful in defeating us. The pressure is coming from all the powerful institutions of this country, the political, the military and the judicial. The government is trying to eradicate our party so that people turn away from us. But the problem is that the AKP has nothing in hand to finish with us, both in the judicial and political aspects. They fail to have anything against us.”

Ebru Günay taking notes. Source: Talal Ahmad

“Another mechanism to try to shut down the HDP is the stubborn trials against the HDP. In those trials, the AKP’s argument is to indict the HDP’s political actions without further ado. It is also a way to show the people that the HDP’s policy is not the right one and deserves to be condemned by the courts. This again aims to portray a dirty image of our political party even if they cannot prove it. It is also a way to fight the HDP. Because the government can’t fight us on the level of political debate, they resort to the judicial voice. In trials, the judges, the decision-makers, the members of the court etc. are not independent. There is no independence of the judiciary in Turkey. The government sends in many judiciary members. Others are strategically placed according to their political affiliation. There is no neutrality or separation between politics and justice. On the contrary, politics uses the judiciary to eliminate the opposition. The judiciary has become an instrument in the service of the politics.”

The Burden of Minority Political Parties

While HDP members face the most significant obstructions, we must not forget that other opposition parties are experiencing prosecutions and violent attacks based on the ground of political motivation. For instance, “CHP lawmakers have been arrested and expelled from parliament, and the party’s chair has faced physical attacks during rallies. In August 2021, the İyi Party Chair Meral Akşener was attacked during a political rally in Sivas” put into light the last report on Turkey of Freedom House under the section “Political Participation and Pluralism”. In December 2021, Turkey’s ministry of interior launched a “special investigation” into hundreds of staff at the Istanbul municipal government for alleged links to militant groups, which Mayor İmamoğlu strongly criticised as a politically motivated form of harassment.

Thus, we are witnessing a worrying increase in attacks on opposition parties. These politically motivated persecutions are unfortunately not reserved for political debate where the confrontation of ideas is at the root of democracy. Indeed, each opposition entity has received judicial injunctions in order to undermine the legitimacy of the party. When political parties exist simply to defend themselves and not their ideas, political plurality is in danger. The manipulation of democracy is thus effective. Some operations were more blatant than others. We are of course thinking of the election for the seat of the mayor of Istanbul where the Supreme Election Council opted for a choice motivated by the AKP. On the other hand, and herein lies the danger, most political manipulations are organized in a more hidden and unnoticed way. There is constant harassment in the courts as well as on the premises of political parties. The electoral and political reconstruction of these political parties is therefore slowed down, leaving more time for the AKP to organize its monopoly.

Main Course: Obstructing Freedom of the Press

As Reporter Without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkey 149 out of 180 in terms of freedom of the press, concern rises for the fourth pillar of the already fractured Turkish democracy. 

  • A friend of mine being forced by the police to delete the pictures he took during the protest. Credit image : Margaux Seigneur

With 90% of the national media under government control, media pluralism is facing an incredible challenge. Indeed, for most of them, Turkish media networks heavily depend on public tenders and are owned by businesses. The latter are problematically close personal ties to the current President Erdoğan. As a direct consequence of this proximity, mainstream media tend to reflect government positions. Although independent media exist, they face political pressure and are routinely prosecuted as illustrated below.

Free media are often censored, fined, or shut down, and journalists are regularly detained. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey was the world’s sixth-largest jailer of journalists in 2021, with 18 in prison at the end of the year. “Journalism is still associated with terrorism in Turkey, and journalistic work is used as evidence against journalists in the overwhelming majority of convictions” denounced the Stockholm Center for Freedom.

It must be noted that on the ground, journalists are increasingly facing violent attacks by security forces. As the 2023 elections are approaching, political tensions are massively growing. Some ultra-nationalist groups are taking to the streets to attack reporters, columnists, commentators and citizen journalists who cover and discuss sensitive issues such as corruption, human rights, economic crisis, democratic deficit

“We fear that the threats from ultra-nationalist circles will open the way to another spiral of violence against outspoken journalists, as it did in the 2019 local elections,” said Erol Önderoğlu, Reporters Without Borders representative in Turkey (who has been prosecuted on terrorism charges for its support of the pro-Kurdish opposition daily Özgür Gündem).

A Widespread Method of Terror: Police Violence

The journalist Bülent Kılıç brutally arrested during the Istanbul Pride march. Source: @eemreorman

Police violence against journalists is also dangerously spreading. During demonstrations, the police very often attack journalists covering them. This was sadly illustrated by the violent arrest and assault of Bülent Kılıç during the Istanbul Pride march that he was covering on Sunday, 26 June 2022. Indeed, the AFP’s chief photographer was arrested while covering the event and taken away handcuffed after denouncing police violence against other media workers. During his arrest, his camera was thrown to the ground and a policeman’s knee was held on his neck preventing him from breathing. 

As a journalist, I have been prevented from reporting and I have been harassed by the police in Turkey. I have notably been arrested for interviewing activists and photographing police violence, assaulted and threatened to damage my camera if I continued.

In order to limit democratic debate, the government continued to censor and block access to online media that are critical of the government’s policies. “In August 2021, authorities blocked the webpages of 141 news reports published by the independent news network Bianet, including stories documenting official government corruption, the trials of journalists, and the rise of gender-based violence in the country” pointed out the section of Freedom of Expression and Belief. Access to the Kurdish and feminist newspaper Jin-news is currently blocked in Turkey because of its political position. Indeed, its website has been shut down more than 42 times by the government. Every single time, new websites have been created to host feminist media in order to counteract censorship.

The Inconspicuous But Effective Judicial Oppression

Logo of the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK). Source: Stockholm Center for Freedom

“The High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK), Turkey’s broadcast regulator whose members are appointed by the AKP-controlled parliament, frequently fines free networks that critique the government”. The last report of Freedom House on Turkey addressed the issue and explained that “throughout 2021, RTÜK issued a total of 71 fines while government-friendly media received no penalties.”

In 2021, journalists were prosecuted for covering protests and corruption allegations against the government, among other sensitive topics. According to the online media Bianet; On June 16, 2022, a Turkish court in the southeastern Diyarbakir city jailed 16 journalists under pre-trial arrest. The specifics of the charges against the media workers are still, to that day, unclear. Their names are : Lezgin Akdeniz, Safiye Alagaş, Serdar Altan, Zeynel Abidin Bulut, Ömer Çelik, Mehmet Ali Ertaş,  Aziz Oruç, Mehmet Şahin, Elif Üngür, Neşe Toprak, Remziye Temel, Abdurrahman Öncü, İbrahim Koyuncu, Mazlum Doğan Güler, Ramazan Geciken, Suat Doğuhan.

“Among imprisonments and legal prosecutions, discriminatory practices against critical journalists and media outlets, such as stripping them of press accreditation, are commonplace”. 

Thus, in this context, the fourth pillar of democracy is not used to provide information to the people. On the contrary, media information is systematically and methodically orchestrated by the ruling party in such a way that the relayed news is in favour of the AKP ideals.

The Ultimate Resistance to be Taken Down: Women Journalists

The Turkish State has routinely weaponised its judiciary in order to target the journalist community in the country. Between January 1 and July 23, 2021, the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ) documented 44 cases of physical assaults by police against women journalists. Indeed, women journalists in Turkey have been on the frontline in the face of state violence.

As denounced by CFWIJ; “In 2021, the total number of incidents increased by 251.47% compared to the entire year of 2020. The year before, this figure was 895.83% less”. 

In 2021, CFWIJ documented a total number of 239 cases against women journalists as well as 82 physical assaults against them. 

Often beaten, arrested and jailed, this new precedent is dangerous for Turkey’s democracy and citizens. Despite these constant threats, women journalists continue to stand up for their rights and write in the name of freedom of expression. 

The Fearless Pen of Öznur Değer

This battle to write down the word resistance is notably the one led by Öznur Değer; a 23-year-old Kurdish and feminist journalist working for JinNews. It is on November 8, 2021, in an Ankara cafe, sitting next to leftists, authors, activists, intellectuals, and Kurds who, all,  live in opposition to the government, that I meet Öznur Değer to interview her. Today Öznur is a well-known journalist in the field. She is notably renowned for her firm opposition to government diktats and her constant struggle to defend the Kurds as well as the women from systematic oppression. 

Öznur Değer during our interview in Ankara. Source: Talal Ahmad

The conversation started on the grounds of Öznur Değer’s Kurdish identity and how this heritage led to shaping the person she is today. 

“When you are Kurd, you learn the struggle. You learn to live under pressure. Being a Kurdish woman in Turkey automatically leads to politics, making you learn how to fight back. Every single attack on our culture is being felt deeply by every single one of our people. At the moment I don’t have a choice but to fight. However, even if I would have to choose, I would still decide to struggle”

Four Years Already Spent in Jail 

If Öznur Değer is now the symbol of struggle, one shouldn’t forget that she already suffered the consequences of her identity. Henceforth, the birth of her warrior personality is closely linked to the month of January 2016. Öznur was 17 years old. The young woman was accused and then arrested. The charges?

“They were no need for any specific reasons. I am a Kurdish woman. Thats’ it! That’s how I’ve learned very early the consequences of being Kurd.”

Öznur Değer

Quickly the false testimonies against her paraded. Only four months later, in May 2016, the heavy sentence fell. She was initially sentenced to 8 years behind bars. However, due to her young age, she was given four years less. Öznur Değer will spend 4 years in prison. She is 17 years old.

She revealed that her time in prison forged her and shaped her into the woman she is today. As if those who wanted to reduce her to an individual who no longer exists in society had in fact given her the tools to prepare for her return.

Öznur Değer talking about her time in prison. Source: Talal Ahmad

“I had the time and the distance to focus on what I wanted to do next. It is during my time in jail that I decided to be a journalist. That’s how I became who I am today. I decided that I wanted to tell the stories of my people, to report the voice of the unheard, of those who are violated and arrested. Because this is not just about me. It is about all Kurdish press and about all women.”

“Today, in Turkey, being a Kurdish journalist implies that I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back home at the end of the day. I simply don’t feel safe and I will never feel so. We are all aware of it. We, the Kurdish people, have been tortured, violated, killed, etc. simply because of what we are. But that only provided us with the strongest thought and a deeper feeling of resistance. This sense of defiance, toughness, and struggle are imprinted in our blood.”

The Risk of Being Imprisoned in the Name of Freedom 

“So many Kurdish journalists are currently in jail simply because they didn’t leave their pens. Simply because they refused to obey the order of the government!”

In view of the latest indictments against the journalist, I then asked her if she was afraid of being imprisoned again. If she has mentally prepared herself for a spell behind bars.

Öznur has been prepared since she got out. It is a personal choice that she must honour in the name of freedom of expression, in the name of women, in the name of Kurds, and in the name of her profession as a journalist as well as in the name of all her colleagues who have been unjustly accused and jailed. 

“We are strong and we are getting stronger every time they try to stop us. Until they won’t stop their political censorship, we won’t step back. This is not only a job. We own this for every single woman. We own this for those who died for our freedom.”

For many years, the Kurdish journalist has systematically been pressured and harassed by the government. Regrettably, the AKP’s persecution of the journalist Değer has only increased in recent months. Investigations and legal actions have been pressed against her along with countless arrests and police assaults. For her determination to denounce and write for those who can no longer, despite the dangers to which she is exposed, Öznur Değer was awarded the first prize in the Gurbetelli Ersöz Women’s Journalism category as well as the Free Press Martyrs Journalism competition. Indeed, in Turkey, being a Kurdish journalist is often tantamount to being a martyr for freedom of expression.

Her story is that of the oppressed, of the indignant, of the Kurds, of the women, of the journalists who will not let go of their pencils.

“For us, it is an honour to be in jail. Are we afraid? Absolutely not. Does the government fears us? Absolutely, yes.”

Öznur Değer

Often referred to as “the fourth pillar of democracy,” the status accorded to journalists and the press, in general, is indicative of the drifts or improvements of a developing society. As Turkey turns out to be an open-air prison for journalists, it has become very questionable to speak of a healthy democracy. The independence of the press is to be protected at all costs, especially when it exposes political, economic and social malfunctions. Therefore, seeing the condemnations and the dangers weighing on the shoulders of journalists who do not adhere to the voice traced by the dominant ideology, the concern is legitimate. When independent online media are simply removed from the internet, when journalists are violently arrested during demonstrations, when Kurdish journalists are imprisoned on terrorism charges, when accreditations are not given to independent reporters, when 90% of the national media are controlled by the state, when indictments are almost systematic, we can speak of an authoritarian state that muzzles freedom of expression.

Dessert: Restricting Freedom of Thought and Expression

When we talk about freedom of expression, it is often the image of a free press that is portrayed. However, freedom of thought and expression resides everywhere. In the streets, in newsrooms, on university benches, in cafés, in the workplace, in demonstrations etc. Therefore, freedom of expression goes hand in hand with freedom of assembly. The latter is crucial for the collective organisation of ideas, the common struggle, the defence of an ideology or the condemnation of government action. While this freedom of assembly is necessary for the plurality of ideas in a society, the Turkish government tends to restrict it.

However, Turkey has ratified the regional and International conventions which ensure freedom of assembly. European Convention on Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are one of those. Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution notably recognises the pre-eminence of international ratified treaties over national law.

A Conditional Freedom of Assembly

As a direct consequence of recognizing the pre-eminence of international treaties, Turkish Law “guarantees” the right to hold an assembly in a peaceful way. Turkish Constitution protects “public statements” by stating that “Everyone has the right to express and spread his/her thoughts and opinions, individually or collectively with verbal, written, visual or other means.” However, Article 26 of the Constitution expresses in its last paragraph; “The forms, conditions and methods that would be used to express and spread freedom of thought are regulated by law.” Despite Article 26, there are no laws regarding spontaneous assemblies nor collective and individual expression of thought. In other words, these rights are regulated by secondary legislative tools which are open to interpretation and can easily be violated.  

Police closing ranks at the end of a demonstration for women’s rights in Ankara. Source: Margaux Seigneur

If the freedom of assembly is indeed allowed and protected by international law and thus, the Turkish ones, this freedom remains strictly regulated by the power of the law and so limited. In addition to restricting the forms, conditions and methods to express freedom of thought, authorization is needed for the meetings open to the public and in the open air. It goes without saying that this authorization may not be issued depending on the desired nature of the event. “Law 7145 extends the power of governors to restrict movement and ban public assemblies within the boundaries of the province they govern and allows police to hold some suspects for up to 12 days without charge” explained the legislation review of euromedrights.

Indeed, in practice, especially since 2016 (under the Emergency Rule and after) restrictions upon the right to peaceful assembly have become ordinary in Turkey. Thus, the arbitrary interpretation of the law determines which ideas are permissible to be publicly defended. 

A Definition of Terrorism Open to Interpretation

Following are the laws which have a negative impact on the right to demonstrate peacefully;

  • Martial Law No.2935
  • Anti-Terror Law No. 3713
  • The Law on Private Security Services No. 5188
  • The Law on the Duties and Responsibilities of Police No. 2559
  • The Law on Associations No. 5253
  • The Law on Political Parties No. 2820
  • The Law on the Basic Principles of Elections and Electors’ Records No. 298
  • The Law on Political Parties No. 2820
  • The Law on Province Administration No. 5442
  • Turkish Penal Code No. 5237 (TPC)
Clashes during a protest against Turkey’s exit from the Istanbul Convention. Source: Euronews

Country review available on Euromedrights.org states that: “As a result of the ambiguous and wide scope of the definition of terrorism in Article 1 of the Anti-Terror Law, thoughts expressed in demonstrations and marches can be deemed as terrorist activities rather than freedom of assembly and expression. In addition, within the framework the Articles 6 and 7 of the Anti-Terror Law those who join demonstrations can be accused of being terrorists or committing terror crimes for their slogans and placards in the demonstrations. As of 30 November 2002, there is no city or region administrated by Martial Law. However, Martial Law was suspended but not abolished. Thus, Martial Law no 2935 can still provide wide authority to those in power to allow or ban any form of assembly.” 

In 2018, several governors continued to use the extraordinary powers they enjoyed under the state of emergency to restrict the right to peaceful assembly, including after the end of the state of emergency in July. 

Thus, if the law allows the freedom of assembly, there are few side constitutional measures which undermine it. Therefore, we can conclude that the freedom of assembly is not protected but also dangerously limited by legal, political, law enforcement and constitutional mechanisms.

The Relentless Ban on LGBTQ+ Pride since 7 Years 

The Istanbul pride parade in June 2015 was banned for the first time by the Istanbul governorship, hours before the event, over “security concerns.” Soon after, it was shut down through police intervention for the first time in its 13-year history. Even since then, the pride march has been banned in Istanbul due to security concerns. If this ban does not discourage those who loudly demand the respect of their rights which they do not have, violent and massive arrests take place – a method used to intimidate activists. This year, in Istanbul, more than 200 demonstrators were arrested and detained. 

A participant faces riot policemen wearing a rainbow flag during a Pride march in Istanbul, on June 26, 2022. Source: Kema Aslan

In Ankara, all public LGBTQ-related discussions and demonstrations are banned. In November 2017, the Ankara governor’s office imposed an indefinite ban on LGBTQ-focused public events under a state of emergency. The emergency rule ended in July 2018. The ban, however, was still not lifted. This year, despite the interdiction, around 50 people holding rainbow flags marched for LGBTQ+ rights. Dozens of them were detained. 

This sad pattern is repeated over the years in all major Turkish cities. Every year, LGBTQ+ pride is banned. Despite the danger, every year people gather to denounce the daily violation of their rights. Every year peaceful demonstrators are arrested.

Turkey: the Open-air Graveyard for Women

Since Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in June, the number of femicides has exploded. Henceforth, more than ever, Turkey is becoming the fertile ground for the growing struggle of feminism. It must be noted that Erdoğan is openly positioned against the principle of gender equality. According to him, the egalitarian concept stands against the conservative values of the traditional family. As a result of which the ruling party sees a burgeoning threat in the mobilization of women to defend their rights. But feminist activists are not backing down in the face of the growing pressure against them.

The Plural Voices of a Joint Opposition

During my many trips to Turkey, I witnessed this societal fracture. I have indeed seen the rupture between the government in place and a part of the people who stand up to defend the rights they no longer enjoy. 

Women’s activism is organized in many of Ankara’s cafes and has its roots in the heart of Kizilay where demonstrations are not uncommon.

In the streets, during the numerous demonstrations, I was able to cover, the plural voices of the opposition are united to shout loudly against the daily violence they suffer. In the hyper centre of the capital, young people mix with the elderly. The voices of Kurds, LGBTQ+, students, pensioners, conservatives, professors, leftists, and feminists are intermingled but the exasperation remains. The cries of mothers who have lost their daughters mingle with the screams of those who have been beaten, had illegal abortions, been expelled from their universities for protesting etc. During these rallies, the traditional class division is broken down to make room for a common feeling; anger. Even the political parties observe a truce in their ideological confrontations and prefer to hold hands to shout louder their determination to see the status of women finally protected. 

  • An old woman who came to protest for women's rights in Kizilay on 8 March 2020. Credit image: Margaux Seigneur
  • Two young activists during the 8 March 2020 demonstration. Credit image: Margaux Seigneur
  • A woman whistles while standing up to the police. Credit image: Margaux Seigneur. Edited by Talal Ahmad
  • A student participating at a feminist protest. Credit image: Margaux Seigneur

Many activists denounce the AKP’s obstructionist policy on violence against women. For instance, not only are there no government statistics reflecting the exact number of femicides but also many murders of women are officially considered suicides. Therefore, the real number of femicides is misrepresented and minimized. It seems that the AKP disguises the cause of women’s deaths to absolve the responsibility that fell upon their shoulders.

“We are in 2021 and yet I am afraid to die because I am a woman. Two years ago, my best friend died. She was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend. Nobody did anything! She died in silence. Today I am shouting for her and all the other woman that no one listened to.”

Irem, 26 years old

All the voices are that of the indication:

Women are alone and killed with absolute impunity. When I’ll go home tonight, I’ll be alone facing the risk of being raped in the street or even killed publicly! Because yes, this is what’s happening here in Turkey!

A Kurdish Student

The Persistent Prosecution of Feminist Protests 

A demonstration of women’s rights in Turkey involves being back to back with Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. On one side, women whose only weapon is the placards they courageously raise. On the other, sheltered by their long suits, protected by their weapons; the police.

Indeed, in Kizilay the queue is long to get into the lung of equal rights. One has to pass through three rows of policemen and policewomen, then be checked before hoping to join the crowd. The organization is flawless and systematic. The four exits are occupied by the forces of the government. Shields, gas launchers, guns; war equipment in short. Militants are the ones who should be fought against!

The police is here to prevent us from protesting but is absent when it comes to protecting us

Another Kurdish student

They are in the minority, occupying 50 square meters! The police pervade the rest of the city. They control the streets, the roofs, the passages, the comings, and the goings. As for them, they proudly control a piece of square, a piece of cement! It is big enough to shout their discontent!

  • Police prepare for evening protest in Kizilay. Credit image: Margaux Seigneur
  • Militant back to back with the police. Credit image: Margaux Seigneur

As you can read in the article on being a feminist activist in Turkey; the voices to be silenced, and arrests are part of the rules when one is an activist. The subject of arrests is unavoidable and systematic. Every advocate I interviewed had been arrested at least once in their short life. The boldest of them have been arrested a dozen times and know that this is only the beginning. In addition to this difficult reality, which ends up in a police station for hours on end, there is also police violence against them. Activists are well aware that when they decide to demonstrate, they will inevitably meet with the police and go home with bruises. To face this state violence, which can be physical but also legal, they all have lawyers who protect their rights when they are in danger.

Opposing the government’s dictate also means having to suffer harsh consequences for professional futures. Indeed, when the voices of those who speak out loudly, are overheard by the university, some may be dismissed.

Thus, there are many deterrent strategies that weigh on the shoulders of activists. These include intimidation by the numbers of policemen and policewomen, arrests, physical police violence, prosecution and possible expulsion from universities. In addition, the police send letters to the families and employees of activists threatening them and making them lose their credibility. In a so-called democratic country, freedom of expression is thus molested. 

Conclusion: The Despotic Monochrome 

President Erdoğan in front of the AKP’s yellow light bulb. Source: Al Jazeera

The portrait we can draw of Turkish democracy is that of a silhouette stained by the blood of police violence, bruised by the arrests of the civil, political and journalistic opposition, splattered by the screams of dying women and sullied by a politicized justice system. Behind this painting is a man dictating with merciless brushstrokes, the features of a nation doomed to obedience. While Kurds, women, political opponents, journalists and members of the LGBTQ+ community are still part of the resistance, they are less and less visible on the intimidating fresco of the despotic painter. 

When the speeches of the political opposition become too loud and cause the tripod of the painting to vibrate, the head of the studio stabilizes the easel by drawing bars around the green and purple colours.

When the activists’ shouts penetrate the painting gallery and come crashing down on the precious canvas, the artist molests them with a thick layer of yellow paint. 

When the denunciatory letters and words of the journalists splash and stain the fresco, the painter grabs a rag to wipe them off and give his canvas the required colour. 

When women demand their rights too loudly, the dauber himself takes his paint knife and pierces the thin layers of varnish that used to outline their faces.

Although this fresco is the work of a single artist, we must not forget the employees of the atelier who work hard every day to create the masterpiece. Lawyer, policeman, and magistrate. Each one has his place but above all his duty to ensure that the greatness of the painter and his work reigns. Indeed, when the despotic artist erases with a black pencil the features of the opposition, the policeman comes and arrests them. The jurist applies and condemns.

Progressively, by dint of erasure, collage and the stroke of the painting knife, the piece of art takes shape. The sketch loses its relief and its sparkle. This is the willpower of the painter who has become unstoppable. The palette, which used to be made up of many colours, now has only one. Dominated by the yellow of the AKP’s light bulb, the painter covers the noisy opposition with a final layer. When the latter is finally silenced, the work is completed. 

It is a yellow monochrome. 

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[REPORT] Erdoğan’s Men…

by Margaux Seigneur time to read: 29 min