Erdogan’s presidency has caused a human rights crisis in Turkey. With one of the world’s highest journalist incarceration rates, rampant arbitrary arrest of political opponents, a dismal minority rights record, and the removal of women’s and LGBTQ rights initiatives, Erdogan’s Turkey has seen a dangerous erosion of democratic norms.
Democracy is like a train; you get off once you have reached your destination.Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 1996
For most of the 2010s, Turkey was the world’s highest incarcerator of journalists, beating out authoritarian countries like China. Independent outlets have been shut down or expropriated and forced to take a pro-government stance, while individual journalists have fled the country to escape imprisonment and even faced assassination attempts. Any journalists that remain in Turkey and speak out against Erdogan’s government are under constant threat.
Recent changes to these numbers do not reflect improvement. In fact, they indicate that Erdogan’s methods have been dangerously successful in eliminating Turkey’s free press. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists:
“the fall to 47 journalists in jail from 68 last year reflects the successful efforts by the government of President Erdogan to stamp out independent reporting and criticism by closing down more than 100 news outlets and lodging terror-related charges against many of their staff.”
The US State Department 2020 Turkey Report on Human Rights Practices found that after the 2016 coup attempt and the clamp down on opposition that followed, “media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.”
The coup attempt has enabled Erdogan to secure the press almost entirely for his own party’s interest. The decrease in journalist arrests only demonstrates the efficacy of Erdogan’s silencing of the free media: those that speak out have either left journalism or left the country.
Arrest of Political Opponents
Turkish prisons have become notorious, and an atmosphere of paranoia has spread across Turkey after the failed 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. The government has rounded up all suspected opponents and branded them as terrorists. Many Kurds, islamist dissidents, leftists, human rights activists, philanthropists, and women’s rights activists have faced criminal investigations, prosecutions, and imprisonment. Those unable to flee have been imprisoned. Some have disappeared. Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, warns that Turkey’s judicial process displays “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law, such as presumption of innocence, no punishment without crime and non-retroactivity of offences, or not being judged for the same facts again.
The government announced in 2020 that it had begun legal action against 597,783 individuals, detained 282,790, and arrested 94,975. Osman Kavala, one of Turkey’s most notable philanthropists and a defender of civil society and cross-cultural, cross-religious dialogue has been arrested and remained in pre-trial detention since 2017 – on the false grounds that he was an orchestrator of the 2013 Gezi Park Protests against Erdogan and his government. Former presidential candidate and leader of the Kurdish-led Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas was imprisoned in 2016 on charges of terrorism – a charge that Erdogan has tried to sell to the Turkish people merely on the grounds that he is Kurdish. In November 2021, Demirtas’ wife was sentenced to two and a half years in jail because of an incorrect date on a medical report. The European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, Nacho Sánchez Amor, called the sentence “appalling” and “political.”
In southeast Turkey, where there is a Kurdish majority, Erdogan and the AKP voted to remove 59 of the 65 democratically elected mayors of the region, arresting many of them in the process for allegedly supporting terrorism. When Turkey launches anti-PKK operations in Iraq, it uses the occasion to arrest Kurdish activists and politicians: for example, in February the government arrested 700 activists for opposing Turkey’s deadly raids in Iraq. Erdogan’s communications director put it succinctly in a tweet: “PKK and HDP are one and the same.”
Erdogan’s effort to silence critics has become one of his most notable exports, contributing to a growing trend among autocratic strongmen who seek to repress opponents abroad. According to Freedom House, the Turkish government has sought to arrest its perceived enemies in as many as 31 different countries all over the world since 2016, and has pressured states to hand over individuals, with little to no due process, with at least 58 renditions since 2014.
Erdogan’s practice of silencing critics abroad, however, has a history that precedes the 2016 coup attempt–and reaches far beyond his political enemies in the Gulen movement. In Paris in January of 2013, a Turkish man who had been accused of murdering three Kurdish exiles–one of whom was a cofounder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)–died in custody amidst allegations that he had been a state operative.
Such incidents indicate a growing pattern of transnational repression that was escalated beyond reason in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, often through the abuse of international bodies like the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). In the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government claimed to have uploaded more than 60,000 names to Interpol’s database. Such politically motivated calls for arrest and extradition—known as “red notices” within the Interpol system—are in direct violation of Interpol’s constitution, which states that “it is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.”
According to Freedom House, no other government has requested as many arrests and red notices through Interpol as Turkey, and these arrest attempts have moved well beyond the government’s pursuit of those accused of orchestrating the coup. In 2017, this pressure led to the detention of German-Turkish writer Dogan Akhanli in Spain, the Swedish-Turkish journalist Hamza Yalcin, and two individuals from Serbia and Bulgaria who were accused of membership in the PKK. This abuse of Interpol drew criticism from Angela Merkel in 2017, who urged members “not [to] misuse international organizations like Interpol for such purposes.”
As home to the world’s largest Turkish diaspora, Germany has seen frequent demonstrations of the long arm of Erdogan’s authoritarianism. Can Dundar and other Turkish journalists who have fled Turkey have received numerous threats and have had to seek the protection of German authorities. In July 2021, rumors about a hit-list of Turkish opposition journalists living in Germany led to questions regarding whether the AKP, or its coalition partner the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), were involved through their contacts with ultra-nationalist Turkish groups, such as the Grey Wolves, that are operative in Germany.
Dissidents all over the world do not feel secure.Hayko Bagdat, exiled Turkish Armenian journalist
The history of minority rights in Turkey has long been a troubled one, but it is one that Erdogan’s government frequently makes use of for its own political ends. Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Jews, among other groups, have all come under fire in recent years as the government uses non-Turkish minorities as scapegoats.
When the Kurdish-led HDP won a stunning 14% of the vote in June 2015 it pushed the AKP out of its parliamentary majority for the first time. Erdogan responded by allowing the civil war between Turkey and the PKK to restart and began arresting HDP members – and is now setting his sights towards the total shutdown of the HDP. Erdogan’s calculus is simple – if Kurds are not voting for him, he has no obligation to hand them full rights. Until late 2015, Kurds looked to be close to gaining unprecedented rights in Turkey. Now, hundreds of Kurdish civil society organizations and Kurdish-language media outlets have been closed, and those that speak Kurdish are treated with suspicion.
For Turkey’s Christians, who only number in the tens of thousands, life has become more difficult in recent years. Armenians have suffered increased discrimination due to Turkey’s strong support for Azerbaijan in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – which has translated to a disconcerting ramping up of anti-Armenian sentiment. Meanwhile, Jews are subject to frequent bouts of anti-Semitism from the government, particularly during bouts of violence between Israel and Palestine.
Women’s and LGBTQ Rights
In March 2021, Erdogan faced enormous domestic backlash for his decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on women’s rights: a landmark agreement between European nations that established firm guidelines on how to better protect women against domestic abuse. He accused the convention of promoting LGBTQ rights, which Turkey’s religious conservatives claim is corroding the fabric of Turkish family values. Meanwhile, the scourge of honor killings, which have killed over 2,600 women since 2010, continues unabated.
Istanbul has long been known as the most LGBTQ-friendly city in the Middle East, and its pride parade in 2013 the largest pride parade in both the Middle East and Eastern Europe, was something to behold. This is a tradition that proudly homophobic Erdogan has been more than happy to overturn. Initially, the government cited Ramadan as a reason for banning the parade but has since stopped making excuses for its actions. Those who show up to march instead face violence. As the Turkish government pushes back against the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals, all attempts to fight back – through demonstrations, civil society, or journalism, are harshly punished.