Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a 600-seat parliament. The unicameral parliament (the Grand National Assembly) exercises legislative authority. In presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and the campaign environment that restricted the ability of opposition candidates, including the jailing of a presidential candidate at the time, to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely. In March municipal elections, Council of Europe observers expressed similar concerns about limitations on freedom of expression, particularly for the media, and about a legal framework that contributed to an unequal campaign environment. The observers also criticized the Supreme Electoral Council’s decision to rerun the Istanbul mayoral race in June and several decisions replacing winning opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidates with second-place governing-party candidates.
The National Police and Jandarma, under the control of the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for security in urban areas and rural and border areas respectively. The military has overall responsibility for border control and external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over law enforcement, but mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption remained inadequate, and impunity remained a problem.
Under broad antiterror legislation the government restricted fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law. Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 45,000 police and military personnel and more than 130,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding the coup attempt, and designated by the government as the leader of the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”).
Significant human rights issues included: reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons, including former opposition members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, foreign citizens, and employees of the U.S. Mission, for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; the existence of political prisoners, including elected officials and academics; significant problems with judicial independence; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and unjustified arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking and the existence of criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; some cases of refoulement of refugees; and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and members of other minorities.
The government took limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish members of the security forces and other officials accused of human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.
Clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and its affiliates continued, although at a reduced level compared with previous years, and resulted in the injury or death of security forces, PKK terrorists, and civilians. The government did not release information on efforts to investigate or prosecute personnel for wrongful or inadvertent deaths of civilians linked to counter-PKK operations.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A limited number of domestic and international human rights groups operated throughout the country, although many faced continued pressure from the government during the year. Some had difficulty registering as legal entities with the Ministry of Interior. Others faced government obstruction and restrictive laws regarding their operations. Human rights groups reported the government was sometimes unresponsive to their requests for meetings and did not include their input in policy formation. Human rights organizations and monitors as well as lawyers and doctors involved in documenting human rights abuses occasionally faced detention, prosecution, intimidation, and harassment, and their organizations faced closure orders for their activities. For example, in May a court sentenced 11 members of the executive board of the Turkish Medical Doctors Union to between 20 months’ and three years’ imprisonment for alleged terror propaganda for their 2018 public statement that “war is a public health issue” during the country’s Operation Olive Branch intervention in Syria. Human rights organizations reported that official human rights mechanisms did not function consistently and failed to address grave violations.
Human rights groups reported continued and intense government pressure. In one case, Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist and civil society leader jailed since 2017, remained in prison on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government” for involvement during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The government also prosecuted on similar charges 15 others loosely associated with Kavala, including human rights activists and academics. Local and international human rights groups criticized the detentions and trials as politically motivated and lacking evidentiary justification.
The HRA reported that as of June its members had cumulatively faced more than 5,000 legal cases, mostly related to terror and insult charges since the group’s establishment. The HRA also reported that executives of their provincial branches were in prison. The HRFT reported its founders and members were facing 30 separate criminal cases. The harassment, detention, and arrest of many leaders and members of human rights organizations resulted in some organizations closing offices and curtailing activities and some human rights defenders self-censoring.
Some international and Syrian NGOs based in the country and involved in Syria-related programs reported difficulty renewing their official registrations with the government, obtaining program approvals, and obtaining residency permits for their staff. Some noted the government’s documentation requirements were unclear.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government continued to staff its human rights monitoring body, the NHREI. According to August press reports, the NHREI received at least 10 applications regarding prison conditions and the practices of prison authorities. The NHREI did not accept any of the complaints. In response to an application regarding prison overcrowding, the NHREI stated that “due to the increased number of arrestees [related to the state of emergency period] and intensity of the capacity in prisons, such practice shall be accepted as proportionate.” Critics complained the institution was ineffective and lacked independence.
The Ombudsman Institution operated under parliament but as an independent complaint mechanism for citizens to request investigations into government practices and actions, particularly concerning human rights problems and personnel issues, although dismissals under the 2016-18 state of emergency decrees did not fall within its purview. According to online data, in 2018 the office received 17,585 applications for assistance, the majority of which dealt with public personnel issues.
The Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures, established in 2017 to address cases and appeals related to purges and closures during the state of emergency, announced in July that it had reviewed a total of 482,000 case files since its inception. From 2017 to August, the commission rejected 77,600 appeals and accepted approximately 6,700. Critics complained the commission’s decisions were opaque, biased, and slow.
The Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Department served as its lead entity on human rights issues, coordinating its work with the ministry’s Victims’ Rights Department.
Parliament’s Human Rights Commission functioned as a national monitoring mechanism. Commission members maintained dialogue with NGOs on human rights issues and conducted some prison visits, although activists claimed the commission’s ability to influence government action was limited.