Crackdown on Turkey’s opposition ‘deeply damaging’: HRW report

HDP rally in Istanbul, 2015 (Photo: Yunus Emre Aydin).

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) vented deep worries in a report published on Monday over the Turkish government’s jailing of lawmakers and the removal of mayors ahead of the 16 April referendum.

While 13 members of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in parliament are in jail on terrorism charges, 82 municipalities in the Kurdish dominated southeast region have been put under direct government control through appointed trustees as mayors and officials of HDP’s regional sister party, Democratic Regions Party (DBP), have been suspended and incarcerated.

The jailing of the parliamentarians was made possible through a temporary constitutional change approved by parliament in May 2016 and, according to HRW, “not only violates their rights to political association and participation, and freedom of expression, but also interferes with the rights of constituents who voted for them and whom they serve in office.”

The one-time removal of immunity for 154 members of parliament only applied to members investigated for criminal offences before the vote on the change in May.

“It’s deeply damaging to Turkey’s democracy that the government is locking up the leaders and MPs of an opposition party that received five million votes in the last election,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. He also added that the timing of the curbs, ahead of the referendum and during an important national debate on the future of Turkey, was “doubly disturbing.”

The one-time removal of immunity has been criticised by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Assembly noted that even though lawmakers from all political parties were concerned, the decision to lift immunity disproportionately affected the opposition parties, in particular the pro-minority left-wing HDP. The HDP have since taken cases to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Venice Commission noted that a large number of the investigation files against parliamentarians concerned their political speeches:

“…most of the files concerned by this abrogation relate to freedom of expression of Members of Parliament. Freedom of expression of Members of Parliament is an essential part of democracy. Their freedom of speech has to be a wide one and should be protected also when they speak outside Parliament. The non-violent pursuit of non-violent political goals such as regional autonomy cannot be the subject of criminal prosecution. Expression that annoys (speech directed against the President, public officials, the Nation, the Republic etc.) must be tolerated in general but especially when it is uttered by Members of Parliament.”

The government used powers under the state of emergency adopted following the July 2016 coup attempt to remove 82 of the 103 elected DBP mayors and take control over municipalities controlled by the DBP through government-appointed provincial authorities.

Thousands of other members of HDP and DBP have been arrested since July 2016. According to HRW, 5,471 HDP party officials, including heads of provincial and district branches, have been detained, with 1,482 sent to pretrial detention. 3,547 DBP party officials have been placed in pretrial detention since July 2015.