On Monday 26th of April, at a trial of members belonging to Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, defence lawyers walked out of court after alleging unfair treatment at the start of the trial. Reuters reports that defence lawyers stated some of their colleagues had not been allowed in the courtroom for “arbitrary, unlawful” reasons in the first hearing in the case of 108 defendants, including pro-Kurdish party members and officials of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The defendants have been accused of instigating the 2014 protests that began during an assault by the Islamic State on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which borders and lays in view of Turkey. The protests, according to Reuters, were triggered by the accusations that Turkey’s army stood by as the Islamic State surrounded Kobani. Thirty-seven people died in these protests. Reuters reports that the 108 defendants, including presidential contender and former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas, are charged with 37 counts of homicide and “disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the Turkish state.” The HDP maintains that this is another attempt by authorities to damage the party. A prosecutor filed a case in March for the party’s closure over alleged links to Kurdish militants. Last June, three HDP lawmakers lost their positions and parliamentary immunity after being convicted as members of a terrorist organization. The HDP, as the main pro-Kurdish party and one of the largest opposition parties to the government, has been accused of having links to the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (Ak) have been accused by both HDP members and international actors of suppressing dissent and interfering with the independence of judicial proceedings. These accusations highlight a continuing concern over Turkey’s violations of fundamental freedoms and rights.
The status of Kurds in Turkey is one of these continuing areas of concern for human rights; the Kurdish-Turkish conflict has resulted in numerous human rights violations, including treating Kurds as minority citizens and restricting their identities. BBC News describes how “many Kurds were resettled, Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language was restricted, and even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied.” The Guardian reports that one-fifth of Turkey’s 80 million population is Kurdish. Almost 20 percent of the population then has received discriminatory treatment by the government for several generations. In response to discrimination, the PKK emerged as a radicalized nationalist group ready to use violence to establish an independent state of Kurdistan. Since the 1990s, the PKK’s goals have shifted from seeking an independent state towards Kurds receiving autonomy and equal protection within Turkey. Attempts at peace negotiations have been made but have fallen through. NBC News reports that many Kurds fear the county could slide into a civil war if there is a continued push for self-governance.
In addition to charges of attempting to suppress dissent by jailing opposition members and accusations of terrorism, Turkey has also raised the alarm for failing to respect fundamental freedoms, such as religion, assembly, and freedom of speech. Judges, lawyers, teachers, human rights defenders, and journalists have been detained or limited in their rights to assembly and speech. The government has countered that the threats posed by an attempted coup in 2016 threaten the country and therefore its actions are justified. The Human Rights Watch organization maintains that these accusations often lacked compelling evidence of criminal activity related to terrorism or the attempted 2016 coup. Amnesty International expresses a concern as well, “The judiciary disregarded fair trial guarantees and due process and continued to apply broadly defined anti-terrorism laws to punish acts protected under international human rights law.” Days after the arrest of Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Guven, ABC reported that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey immediately release Demirtas. Erdoğan accuses Demirtas of being a terrorist with links to Kurdish insurgents. However, the ECHR ruled that Demirtas’ four-year imprisonment since 2016 violated his rights on five fundamental rights categories: freedom of expression. While these condemnations are a start, they have had no enforcement. As reported, Erdoğan opposed the ruling, stating that the ruling does not bypass the Turkish judiciary and their courts will only evaluate the ECHR decisions. Additionally, due to Turkey’s worsening human rights record, the European Union formally suspended membership accession negotiations. While condemnation and conditions are a start, there needs to be a push for proactive rather than reactive responses that can be enforced.
Sanctions are one method nations send a clear and enforceable message that violations of rights are not acceptable behaviour. Notably, the United States imposed sanctions in December 2020 to purchase a Russian air defence system. At the end of April, United States (U.S.) Senators re-introduced a bill that would impose sanctions on Turkey if it does not address its human rights record. N World news reports that the bill directs the U.S secretary of state to assist civil society organizations in Turkey to release political prisoners. Further, this legislation wants Turkey to “take steps to significantly improve the dire climate for journalists” and “cease its ongoing crackdown on free expression on the internet, including repealing or amending laws that allow the government to block a website or remove content from the website.” The bill also calls for an end to the detention and prosecution of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors. Without the implementation of these measures, the bill calls upon the president to impose sanctions. The bill also wants the Treasury Department to direct key international financial institutions to oppose any loans, grants, policies, or strategies that are “determined to be enabling the Turkish government to violate the human rights of its citizen.” The use of sanctions as a tool could be effective, as NBC News reports, Erdoğan has lost support due to concern over the country’s shaky finances and the coronavirus pandemic. The use of sanctions should be employed to have Turkey acknowledge and redress past grievances. All nations and major organizations should reconsider their relationship and partnership with countries that commit human rights violations. Any country with arms deals with such countries should consider ceasing and be subject to sanctions. If nothing else, the countries can, at minimum, like the legislation proposes, assist civil society organizations fighting against abuses.
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