Vocal Europe: There have been recently large numbers of national and international media coverage reporting that many organizations doing human rights work in Turkey face certain challenges and difficulties. Does Amnesty International office in Turkey have any problem with the Turkish authorities due to its work and activities expressing the ongoing human rights violations in the country?
Jenny Vanderlinden: A week after the attempted coup of 15 July 2016 Amnesty International issued a press release stating we gathered credible evidence that detainees in Turkey are being subjected to beatings and torture in official and unofficial detention centres in the country. For speaking out about this we have been immediately targeted by the government on Twitter and in speeches by President Erdogan and others. The government accused us of not having condemned the coup, and that we only raised concern with the rights of the coup-plotters and therefore made propaganda for the “Fethullah Gülen Terror Organisation”. Nevertheless, from day one, we have repeatedly condemned the failed coup attempt in press releases and interviews and we immediately called the government to bring those responsible for abuses during the coup attempt to justice.
Pro-government press has also targeted Amnesty. Obviously this pressure and the climate of hate and anger after the coup attempt raised concerns for the security of our staff in Turkey and made our work very difficult at this critical time. Nevertheless, all Amnesty International sections will continue to document human rights violations in Turkey as we do around the world. Our organization is known for its independent, impartial and scrupulous work on human rights. The Turkish government should admit this. Our section in Turkey is still active. Many other NGO’s, national and local one, are facing more problems than we do. On 22 November 2016, 375 NGOs were permanently closed following an executive decree stating that these associations are linked to terrorist organizations or against the national security. It include human rights organizations, women’s rights organizations, local cultural associations, associations providing support to people living in poverty, students and business associations and even sports clubs. The closure of these NGOs is obviously disproportionate and cannot be justified even under the state of emergency. This is in violation of the rights to freedom of expression and association.
VE: Did you have any contact with the Turkish authorities, being relevant state bodies or embassies, after the attempted coup in July 2016 to discuss severe violations of human rights in Turkey, which are still unfolding?
JV: Our International Secretariat based in London requested and held meetings with the Turkish government in Ankara and does whatever possible to maintain the dialog and normalize relations with them. Our representatives met with officials of the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Interior, with the EU delegation in Ankara as well.
In Belgium, immediately after the coup attempt, we asked an appointment with the Ambassador of Turkey in Brussels. We requested that meeting after Ambassador’s statement to the press stating that our organization didn’t say a word for the victims of the failed coup and that he would be ready to meet us if we really have credible evidence of torture in detention centers. Our request for appointment was refused.
We issued then an open letter to the Ambassador reminding him our press release of 16 July condemning the failed coup and underlying the disastrous consequences of a military coup on human rights and the duty of the government to bring those responsible for the failed coup to justice but that the response of the government should be proportionate, for a legitimate purpose and in respect of the rule of law even under the state of emergency. We know today by the massive crackdown that the Turkish government failed in this.
VE: Recently, the Turkish government published another governmental decree dismissing thousands of academics from a large number of universities across the country. Is Amnesty International planning to take any concrete action against this very serious matter?
JV: Since the beginning of 2016 we campaigned for the academics who signed a petition for peace. The 2,000 signatories of that petition were criticizing the ongoing curfews and security operations in south eastern Turkey and calling on the “government to prepare the conditions for negotiations and create a road map that would lead to a lasting peace which includes the demands of the Kurdish political movement.” Shortly after publication of the petition criminal investigations started. Since then we are attending and monitoring trials of some of these academics in Turkey.
With the last decree, the situation of the academics, and amongst them academics for peace, deteriorated considerably. After the failed coup more than 120.000 civil servants were dismissed, amongst them more than 4000 academics. Dismissal implies being banned from taking up office in public institutions or corporations, confiscation of passports, and in some cases confiscation of property.
The high number of suspensions and dismissals suggests a country wide witch hunt, in which public servants are being punished without due process. Our organization has called Turkish authorities to respect workers’ rights and ensure that suspensions or dismissals can be challenged in fair and transparent procedures. And we will continue appealing for this.
In several countries, solidarity programs with Turkish academics have started. In Belgium, the ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles) opened a chair for a Turkish academic and sends observers to their trials. This is an initiative that we will promote.
VE: What is your take on the attempted coup of July 15 last year and do you agree with the argument that the attempted coup has been a catalyzer for further human rights violations, particularly for the incidents of torture in prisons?
JV: It is obvious that the human rights situation in Turkey deteriorated dramatically since the coup attempt. Even if the country is now returning to normal, it is a new normal, where the respect for human rights is exceptionally low. A normal where lot of people live in fear to be arrested and do not dare to speak out. I’m working since a long time on human rights in Turkey and never knew such a desperate situation. In the early days after the coup attempt, our organization had the opportunity to talk to lawyers, doctors and even people working in detention centers. Detainees have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment either to obtain confessions or to punish them. Detainees have been held in stress positions, denied from water, food and medical treatment, subjected to beatings, rape and sexual assault.
Some people are detained without even knowing the charges against them, they have restricted access to lawyers, they cannot choose their lawyer, at best interviews with lawyers are recorded or happening in presence of police. This will obviously all lead to unfair trials.
The conditions in prisons are extremely difficult. Some prisoners are not allowed to receive letters or books from the outside, only closed relatives can visit them once a week and no contact with other prisoners is allowed except with those held in the same cell. Some prisoners having health problems do not receive their medication. Prisons are overpopulated, sometimes 5 prisoners are held in a cell for two, forcing people to sleep on the ground. Cells are dirty and cold. This is not human.
VE: Although it has been more than seven months since the attempted coup in Turkey and the fact that the Turkish government could not so far put forward reliable evidences regarding who was behind the coup, how do you evaluate the ongoing arrests and dismissals of thousands of people based on the allegations that all these people had link with the Gulen Movement that the Turkish government holds responsible for the coup on 15 July last year?
JV: It is clear that the failed coup has been an opportunity for President Erdogan to silence all dissident voices in the country. At a first stage people being accused to have links with the Gülen movement have been dismissed and/or arrested arbitrarily. But today all AKP opponents are being targeted and any criticism is a reason to jail people under terrorism offences, either linked to the Gülen movement, to the PKK or to leftist movements. An example of this is the closure of the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, and the arrest of their journalists under terrorism charges. Another example is the arrest of the journalists of Cumhuriyet, an opposition newspaper.
Amnesty started a new campaign “A prison of silence: the death of journalism in Turkey” and I invite your readers to sign our petition. Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world, One third of all imprisoned journalists in the world are being held in Turkish prisons, the vast majority waiting to be brought to trial. 160 media outlets have been closed and 120 journalists are detained. Turkey became the biggest prison of journalists in the world.
VE: Since the attempted coup last year, thousands of dissidents fled the country and ended up in Europe due to fear of execution and torture in Turkey. Various official reports stated that many of these people have already applied to asylum predominantly in several EU member states where the asylum procedure moves extremely slow because of political reasons. What is your stance on this matter particularly for those people who applied to asylum in your country – Belgium? More importantly, do you expect a decision by the related state bodies in Belgium refusing all these asylum seekers?
JV: The number of Turkish asylum seekers in Belgium increased considerably these last months as in many other EU countries and it will probably continue in the coming months. Many people still try to flee Turkey. At my knowledge, up to now, no asylum request was accepted or rejected in Belgium but I didn’t hear or read any official statement from the Belgian government on how these asylum applications will be handled.
These people claim their innocence and feel they are on the “black list” because they share European values, criticized their government, and do not agree with President Erdogan’s authoritarian attitude. They are judges, journalists, NATO officers, academics, diplomats,… and lot of them had high ranking jobs.
The Turkish government issued a legislative decree under the state of emergency early January 2017, which stipulates that Turkish people abroad who are wanted on arrest warrants and do return home within three months after being officially asked will lose their citizenship. It means that they have two options: either return home and be jailed or be at risk of becoming stateless.
I can hardly believe that protection will not be granted to them by my country.