North Africa, West Asia

Attacks on civil society in Turkey, human rights and solidarity

Protests and a show of strength demonstrate the importance of challenging a state that reverts to the arbitrary exercise of power.

Lutz Oette
17 November 2016

A woman shouts slogans outside the headquarters of the Cumhuriyet newspaper in Istanbul, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016 following the detentions of at least 13 senior staff members. Picture by Emrah Gurel AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincani, a forensic doctor, university professor, and human rights defender, has been a leading figure in the struggle against torture worldwide. Now she stands accused, together with two prominent journalists, Erol Önderoĝlu and Ahmet Nesin, of having committed serious crimes, including propaganda for terrorism.

The crime? Acting as a one day guest editor-in-chief for the now banned newspaper, Özgur Gündem Daily, to show solidarity with the editors who have faced prosecution.

As someone who has worked closely with Dr. Fincanci, I, and many others around the world who have come to know her as a passionate and compassionate defender of human rights, was appalled when I heard about the prosecution. This is not an ordinary case in what are extraordinary times in Turkey.

True, Özgur Gündem, a forum for Kurdish voices, has been the subject of repeated attacks on its press freedom going back to the 1990s, with the European Court of Human Rights repeatedly finding Turkey to be in breach of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. But today journalists, human rights defenders and others are experiencing a full-frontal assault.

This assault threatens to severely weaken the very fabric of civil society, and the tradition of civic engagement and resistance that is part and parcel of modern Turkey. When meeting doctors, lawyers and academics who do not fit the mould of the new dispensation, it is not a question if but how many, and what charges are pending against them, or whether they have been dismissed from their posts already.

Over a hundred journalists are in prison, making Turkey one of the main jailers of this profession worldwide. Eren Keskin, a prominent lawyer, has had to defend herself against a staggering number of more than a hundred charges. Thousands of academics have been dismissed by decree, without any due process. The judiciary has been purged, and cases bear the hallmarks of what Otto Kirchheimer in his classic work on the subject, called political trials, in which courts are used to pursue political goals.

Having a good defence, and relying eventually on the European Court of Human Rights to prevent or at least correct any injustices, would be at the core of legal strategies to counter unjustified criminal prosecutions. Yet, these steps are clearly not enough in the circumstances of what appears for all intents and purposes to be a concerted campaign, fully unleashed in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016.

In response, therefore, we decided to revert to direct action. We, that is a group of national and international journalists, human rights defenders and activists who got together both because we highly value the work of the accused and to defend freedom of the press and human rights in Turkey, organised a solidarity forum and demonstration, with plenty of media in attendance, and flooded the court room for the hearing of the case on 8 November 2016 before the Istanbul Heavy Penal Court.

Our intervention was not a typical trial observation in the sense of ensuring the propriety of proceedings. It was rather a more tumultuous affair in which the judges gave up attempts to limit the number of attendees, with many standing in the aisles while others were squeezing on the overflowing benches.

It directly challenged the legitimacy of the very court, created space to express counter-narratives, and provided intellectual and emotional support to the defendants. Was it successful? Two of the defendants present (the third defendant was absent), Dr. Fincanci and Mr. Önderoĝlu, gave passionate statements in defence of freedom of expression before the trial was postponed.

The eventual outcome of the trial is anyone’s guess but the defendants greatly welcomed the joint national and international solidarity, and found it empowering in what are very testing times for them.

The combined protest and show of strength through our presence demonstrated the importance of challenging a state that reverts to arbitrary exercise of power at every single step. It also served as antidote to voices fond of talking about the end of human rights as a liberal project; human rights have for a long time been about much more than that, certainly in Turkey.

Political trials also hold a message for those who are quick to dismiss courts, such as in the United Kingdom, if they are not siding with the government and fulfil the wishes of “the people”. They would do well to read the works of lawyers who fought against Nazi Germany. Key figures such as Ernst Fraenkel and Franz Neumann stressed the essential role and value of an independent judiciary, and of the rule of law while being mindful and critical of the biases and shortcomings of the administration of justice in liberal democracies.

Developments in Turkey are yet another reminder that this struggle needs to be fought again and again, and to make sure that those who are at the frontline of it receive our continuous support and solidarity.

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