Turkey, the difficult journey of human rights
18 December 2017

When in 1990 Turkish sculptor Metin Yurdanur was asked to design and carve a monument in honour of Human Rights to be placed in central Ankara, it was probably impossible to predict that the bronze statue of a girl sitting on a chair reading the declaration of Human Rights, sculpted by the Turkish artist, would have been one day “imprisoned”. But last May the same Turkish authorities who 27 years before had commissioned the construction of the statue ordered riot police to surround the monument, which has since then become a popular place for protests, with thick barricades.

“It happened almost a year ago”, says at Reset DOC Eren Keskin, lawyer and vice president of İnsan Hakları Derneği (İHD), the most important Human Rights Association in Turkey. “After the State of Emergency was declared in the aftermath of July 15 2016 attempted coup d’etat – she continues – a large number of public officers, academics and teachers were fired from their jobs. Two of those teachers, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, decided to start a hunger strike against their dismissal and they began to demonstrate in front of the Human Rights monument every day. Many people soon began to join them there to show solidarity but, citing the State of Emergency as a pretext, police responded with violence to prevent the demonstrations. This is the reason why barricades have been placed around the statue”.

Fired in the aftermath of 2016 coup attempt, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça still have not been able to return to their jobs like tens of thousands of others who have been dismissed from their posts during the State of Emergency with the accusation of an alleged connection with the foiled coup. Refusing to have had any connection with the putchists, like many others, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça believe their dismissal has nothing to do with the ongoing investigation into the coup but rather appears to be more like a move by the government to toss aside dissidents. The two teachers decided to turn their distress into a public protest and they are now on a hunger strike for nearly the past 300 days. Meanwhile they have been charged with terrorism accusations and have been arrested for several months. Recently released from prison due to their poor health, if convicted they face up to 20 years in jail and they received international solidarity for their struggle.

Sitting at her desk with books and documents piled around in the İHD headquarter in Istanbul, Keskin shows support for the two fired teachers who risk not just many years in jail but their own lives for their fight. “Their struggle is our struggle but I am personally against the hunger strike as a form of protest and at İHD we shared this stance. We do not support such demonstrations because we believe there are other ways to protest. However, they started a hunger strike and they are walking towards death. We want them to have their jobs back and in this regard we support them but we also want them to end the hunger strike because really we do not want to see them dead. Unlike İHD, this State does not feel empathy for them. The State does not care about their health conditions. We need to find another way”.

According to the vice president of İHD, violations of human rights in Turkey are increasing after the declaration of the State of Emergency in August 2016 but for an NGO committed to human rights like İHD life has never been easy. “Our association has always been persecuted, many want the closure of İHD. Two years ago we faced detentions and arrests because we prepared a report about the murder of many civilians in a basement in Cizre, a town in Kurdistan”, she explains talking about the situation in the Kurdish dominated Turkey’s southeast where since 2015 the 40 years long conflict between the Turkish army and the outlawed Kurdish armed militias erupted again after a weak 2 years long truce which had previously been arranged between the Turkish government and the PKK. “Anyway, İHD is an internationally acknowledged human rights organisation thus it cannot be easily shut down”, explains Eren Keskin who herself has experienced intimidation escaping armed attacks in 1994 and 2001 for her work as human rights defender. “I have been detained myself and I was referred to a court demanding my arrest. I was released but banned from travelling abroad and I have to report at the police station every Sunday for some time. There are 143 individual persecutions against me and I risk a prison sentence. Many of my colleague at İHD face similar charges”.

While İHD has been targeted since its foundation in 1986, this year the crackdown on Human Rights defenders in Turkey has reached even an organization as renown as Amnesty International. During last June, 11 activists of Amnesty, including the director of the local branch of Amnesty, were arrested in Istanbul and accused with terrorism in relation with the previous year attempted coup. Two of the human rights defenders arrested were European citizens who came to Turkey with the intention to attend an Amnesty International workshop organized in one of Istanbul’s Princess islands. After several months in prison, the activists were released but their trial is still ongoing. According to Eren Keskin, the police operation targeting Amnesty International has implications with recent developments in Turkey’s foreign policy, more and more in conflict with the Western allies. “It is entirely related to the international policies of Turkey – she affirms without hesitation – especially right now, Turkey has moved away from its relations with the USA and the European Union as a result of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s policies. Turkey has been criticized by the West because of Erdoğan’s policies and the arrests of Amnesty International activists is the consequence. In fact, I consider that operation not to be ordinary arrest but as a hostage taking operation. Those activists have been depicted as spies in Turkey. They have been released after the first hearing but the chair of Amnesty International, who was already arrested during Spring, is still in prison. The accusations are baseless. It is not legal but Turkey is not a State following Rule of Law and this truly matters because, for example, our government is a signatory in most of the international conventions but they are not being implemented. As example I can mention the Istanbul convention against the violence on women which has been signed by Turkey and it is a very important one. However, the State does not implement it. The point is that in Turkey written legislation does not comply with practice”.

Besides the Amnesty International case, İHD vice president Eren Keskin is alarmed by many other human rights violation occurring nowadays in Turkey such as a last minute ban on a LGBTI+ film festival in Ankara organized by the German embassy or the beginning of the trial of the hundreds of Turkish university professors accused of terrorism, and in some cases dismissed from their professions, because they signed a petition in 2016 demanding the end of armed conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK in Turkey’s southeast. She is not surprised when I ask her to comment on a recent survey where 64% of the Turkish population declared in favour of limiting human rights in the name of preventing terrorism. “I believe the percentage could be even higher than that – she affirms with a solemn smile – Turkey has a totalitarian structure and its society is a reflection of the State. Education standards are horrible and we can say that a Turkish Islamist synthesis shapes most of society. The official ideology of the Turkish republic has been established on a lie which is the denial of the Armenian genocide. The problems of Turkey are impossible to solve without first questioning Turkish official history and we are prevented from even talking about it”.

With over 30 years behind, İHD is still fighting for human rights in Turkey, “we had many things to fear – Eren Keskin admits – but we are aware that we cannot gain anything with fear”. And this determination could be proved by the fact that members of the organization decided to protest in Ankara in front of the barricaded Human Rights monument on Human Rights International Day, last December 10th, despite the bans and despite the fact that the president of the İHD was briefly detained 20 days before staging a similar protest in front of the statue.

Imprisoned by a thick line of grey barricades but careless of the State of Emergency still ongoing, the girl of the monument dedicated to Human Rights in Ankara keeps silently reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Impassive to the barrier posed by riot police around her she has become one of the most striking metaphors of the condition of Human Rights in Turkey today.