Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a unicameral 600-seat parliament (the Grand National Assembly). In presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and the campaign environment, including the jailing of a presidential candidate that restricted the ability of opposition candidates to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely.
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 officials, but mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption remained inadequate. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Under broad antiterror legislation passed in 2018 the government continued to restrict fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law. Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 60,000 police and military personnel and approximately 125,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 90,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accused of masterminding the coup attempt and designated as the leader of the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization.”
Significant human rights issues included: reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and continued detention of tens of thousands of persons, including opposition politicians and former members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, 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; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; 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 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 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, 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 counterterrorist operations.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
c. Freedom of Religion
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The government and independent monitoring groups reported with concern that rates of violence against women remained high although the number of femicides decreased slightly from 2019. The We Will Stop Femicide Platform, an NGO dedicated to monitoring violence against women since 2008, reported a record 421 femicides in 2019. The NGO estimated that men killed at least 407 women during the year. Between April 15 and May 19, the Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Services received a record 2,506 complaints of domestic violence following the release of 90,000 convicts from prisons as part of the country’s COVID-19 countermeasures.
The law criminalizes violence against women and sexual assault, including rape and spousal rape, with penalties of two to 10 years’ imprisonment for conviction of attempted sexual violation and at least 12 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape or sexual violation. The government did not effectively or fully enforce these laws or protect victims. In one example in July, authorities found the body of Pinar Gultekin, a university student who had been missing for five days. Police alleged that a former boyfriend strangled her after an argument and placed her body in a barrel, which was then burned and filled with concrete. In October police apprehended and arrested the suspect. The brutal crime generated extensive negative media and social media coverage and led to protests in several cities. On July 22, the president issued a tweet that condemned the crime and violence against women and promised that the killer would receive the maximum punishment.
In April, Muslum Aslan beat his 11-year-old daughter to death only days after being released from prison. Authorities released Aslan, who had been arrested for stabbing his wife in the neck with scissors and had a history of abusing his children, during the COVID-19 amnesty after he had served only five months of his sentence. Police re-arrested Aslan, and he committed suicide in prison in May.
The law covers all women and requires police and local authorities to grant various levels of protection and support services to survivors of violence or those at risk of violence. It also mandates government services, such as shelter and temporary financial support, for victims and provides for family courts to impose sanctions on perpetrators.
The law provides for the establishment of violence prevention and monitoring centers to offer economic, psychological, legal, and social assistance. There were 81 violence prevention centers throughout the country, one in each province. There were 145 women’s shelters nationwide with capacity for 3,482 persons. As of July, 42,396 individuals, including 26,347 women and 16,049 children received services from women’s shelters. Women’s rights advocates asserted there were not enough shelters to meet the demand for assistance and that shelter staff did not provide adequate care and services, particularly in the southeast. Some NGOs noted shelters in multiple southeastern provinces closed during the 2016-18 state of emergency and COVID-19 lockdowns and that others faced difficulty following the removal of elected mayors and appointment of government trustees, some of whom cut funding and ended partnerships with the local NGOs. Lack of services was more acute for elderly women and LGBTI women as well as for women with older children. The government operated a nationwide domestic violence hotline and web application called the Women Emergency Assistance Notification System (KADES). In November the Ministry of Interior stated that since its inception in 2018, the KADES app has received more than 48,686 reports and that authorities had responded to each, but it did not specify types of response. NGOs asserted the quality of services provided in calls was inadequate for victims of domestic violence and that women were at times directed to mediation centers or told to reconcile with their husbands.
Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a serious and widespread problem both in rural and urban areas. Pandemic lockdowns for COVID-19 during the year coincided with increased reports of domestic violence. Spousal rape is a criminal offense, and the law also provides criminal penalties for conviction of crimes such as assault, deprivation of liberty, or threats. Despite these measures, killings and other forms of violence against women continued.
The government sparked controversy across the political spectrum during the summer when some senior members of the ruling AKP called for the country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which the country ratified in 2012. Critics of the convention alleged its commitment to equal implementation without discrimination based on “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” violated Turkish values and that the convention damaged family structures. The calls for withdrawal generated a significant domestic backlash, including from within the ruling party, and women’s rights groups organized in support of the convention. In July and August, protests against withdrawal and for improved government response in combatting violence against women took place nationwide regularly. Some protests resulted in scuffles between police and protesters. Police detained demonstrators at several of the protests, including those in Ankara and Istanbul in August. At the end of the year, the government had not taken any steps to withdraw from the convention.
Courts regularly issued restraining orders to protect victims, but human rights organizations reported police rarely enforced them effectively. Women’s associations also charged that government counselors and police sometimes encouraged women to remain in abusive marriages at their own personal risk rather than break up families.
In June, Sevtap Sahin was killed by her husband in Ankara. According to her family, Sahin had filed 60 domestic violence and restraining order violations complaints with police prior to her murder. In October, Istanbul resident Gul Gulum was killed by her husband, against whom she had obtained a restraining order. In both cases police arrested the husbands following the killings.
Courts in some cases gave reduced sentences to men found guilty of committing violence against women, citing good behavior during the trial or “provocation” by women as an extenuating circumstance of the crime.
For example, in July the Court of Cassation reduced the sentence for Lutfu Sefa Berberoglu, convicted of murdering his wife in 2013 after seeing her in a car with two men, from life imprisonment for murder to 15 years’ imprisonment. The court cited unjust provocation and lack of spousal loyalty as reasons for the reversal.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Human rights activists and academics reported the practice of “honor killings” of women continued across the country. The prevalence of killings was most severe in the southeast.
Individuals convicted of honor killings may receive life imprisonment, but NGOs reported that courts often reduced actual sentences due to mitigating factors. The law allows judges, when establishing sentences, to take into account anger or passion caused by the “misbehavior” of the victim.
Sexual Harassment: The law provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for sexual harassment. If the victim is a child, the recommended punishments are longer; however, women’s rights activists reported that authorities rarely enforced these laws. For example, in October a man previously sentenced to eight years in prison for sexually harassing a teacher, but never arrested since an appeals court did not confirm the verdict, shot a woman who rejected his proposal of marriage.
Gender equality organizations indicated that incidents of verbal harassment and physical intimidation of women in public occurred with regularity and cited as the cause a permissive social environment in which harassers were emboldened.
Some women’s rights NGOs asserted that weak legal enforcement of laws to protect women and light sentencing of violent perpetrators of crimes against women contributed to a climate of permissiveness for potential offenders. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, there were 15,842 sexual harassment cases in 2019. Courts ruled for acquittal in 17 percent of cases, in 40 percent of cases the perpetrator was found guilty and sentenced, and in 25 percent of cases, courts suspended the sentence through a verdict postponement judgement. The high rate of verdict postponement contributed to perceptions of impunity for sexual harassment.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, and most had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Cultural barriers to access of contraception exist in religiously conservative communities. According to a 2017 UN World Family Planning report, 6 percent of women between 15 and 49 years of age reported an unmet need for family planning methods. Access to family planning methods and information on managing reproductive health was more difficult for many of the four million refugees in the country. During the year the Reproductive Health Journal published a review on the sexual and reproductive health of Syrian refugee women that stated the rate of postnatal care was inadequate. The review reported a 24-percent rate of modern contraceptive method use among all age groups of Syrian girls and women, with estimated rates of unmet family planning needs at 35 percent and only 20 percent of Syrian women having regular gynecological examinations.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or forced sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same rights as men by law, but societal and official discrimination were widespread. Women faced discrimination in employment.
The constitution permits measures, including positive discrimination, to advance gender equality. To encourage the hiring of women, the state paid social services insurance premiums on behalf of employers for several months for any female employee older than 18. Laws introduced as a gender justice initiative provided for maternity leave, breastfeeding time during work hours, flexibility in work hours, and required childcare by large employers. Rights organizations contended, however, that these changes in the legal framework discouraged employers from hiring women and negatively affected their promotion potential.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
During the year LGBTI individuals experienced discrimination, intimidation, and violent crimes. Human rights groups reported that police and prosecutors frequently failed to pursue cases of violence against LGBTI persons or accepted justification for perpetrators’ actions. Police rarely arrested suspects or held them in pretrial detention, as was common with other defendants. When arrests were made, defendants could claim “unjustifiable provocation” under the penal code and request a reduced sentence. Judges routinely applied the law to reduce the sentences of persons who killed LGBTI individuals. Courts of appeal previously upheld these verdicts based in part on the “immoral nature” of the victim. LGBTI advocates reported that police detained transgender individuals engaged in sex work to extract payoffs and that courts and prosecutors created an environment of impunity for attacks on transgender persons involved in sex work.
In June the LGBTI advocacy organization Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association (KAOS-GL) released information regarding 150 self-reported attacks on LGBTI individuals in 2019. The number of reports collected via an online survey increased from 62 the previous year. According to available data, 129 attacks took place in public space, and 41 included multiple attackers. In one-half of the incidents, bystanders did not get involved, and in one-quarter, onlookers sided with the attackers. Only 26 attacks were reported to police, reportedly due to victims’ lack of confidence in effective action and fears of discrimination by police.
In July the Mersin-based LGBTI-rights NGO 7 Color Association, as part of its yearly report on LGBTI human rights abuses in the southeast, indicated that public servants perpetrated 30 percent of the 132 hate speech and discriminatory incidents against LGBTI individuals reported in the cities of Adana, Mersin, Hatay, Antep, and Antalya.
In April a transgender woman, Ajda Ender, reported she was forced to flee her residence because of death threats and physical assaults from her neighbors. Ender reported that police refused to accept her complaint and used transphobic speech when she applied for help. Ender fled to a friend’s apartment where neighbors also reacted with transphobic threats.
While the law does not explicitly criminalize LGBTI status or conduct, provisions of law concerning “offenses against public morality,” “protection of the family,” and “unnatural sexual behavior” sometimes served as a basis for abuse by police and discrimination by employers.
Numerous LGBTI organizations reported a continued sense of vulnerability as restrictions on their freedom of speech, assembly, and association continued. LGBTI advocates also described a “frightening” rise in hate speech of a “fundamentally different character” following controversial remarks by the president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and subsequent support for the Diyanet president from high-ranking government officials, including the president. On April 24, during a sermon to mark the beginning of Ramadan, the head of the Diyanet, Ali Erbas, said, “Islam cursed homosexuality” as ‘a great sin’ that “causes diseases and decays lineages.” Erbas also called on followers to unite to “fight this kind of evil.” Supportive segments of the populace posted on social media under the top-trending hashtag #AliErbasYalnizdegildir (Ali Erbas is not alone). Several rights groups and bar associations filed criminal complaints and criticized the remarks, drawing a strong reaction from ruling AKP officials. The Ankara Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation against the Ankara Bar Association for “insulting religious values” after it condemned Erbas’ remarks in a statement. The prosecutor’s office declined to investigate the bar association’s complaint against the Diyanet.
Anti-LGBTI rhetoric also featured prominently in public debates around the country’s potential withdrawal from the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Commentators in favor of withdrawal generally pointed to the convention’s reference to equal protection for victims regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity as being inconsistent with Turkish values.
High-level government officials employed anti-LGBTI speech. In June the director of communications of the Presidency, Fahrettin Altun, wrote on Twitter, “LGBT propaganda poses a great threat to freedom of speech.” President Erdogan warned against “those who exhibit all kinds of perversion that our God prohibits” during a television interview the same month.
In July the Radio and Television Supreme Council refused to grant a license to a Turkish television drama featuring an LGBTI character in development by Netflix. Netflix cancelled the production.
In November the Malatya municipality cancelled the planned 10th Malatya International Film Festival after festival organizers announced they would award a “gender-neutral” best performance award instead of best actor and actress awards. The municipality stated that the term “gender-neutral” offended its values.
In December press reported that the Ministry of Trade Board of Advertisement notified Turkish online retailers via letter that companies must label LGBTI pride products featuring rainbows or other LGBTI pride symbols with an 18+ warning to protect “children’s mental, moral, psychologic, and social development.”
The criminal code does not include specific protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The law allows for up to three years in prison for hate speech or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law’s failure to include protections based on gender identity and noted it was sometimes used to restrict freedom of speech and assembly rather than to protect minorities. LGBTI definitions were not included in the law, but authorities reported a general “gender” concept in the constitution provides for protections for LGBTI individuals. KAOS-GL maintained that, due to the law’s failure to recognize the existence of LGBTI individuals, authorities did not provide them social protection.
KAOS-GL reported that some LGBTI individuals were unable to access health services or faced discrimination. Some LGBTI individuals reported they believed it necessary to hide their identities, faced mistreatment by health-service providers (in many cases preferring not to request any service), and noted that prejudice against HIV-positive individuals negatively affected perceptions of the LGBTI community. In August press reports alleged that an LGBTI individual was refused treatment at a hospital in Istanbul by the doctor on duty, who employed homophobic comments. Multiple sources reported discrimination in housing, since landlords refused to rent to LGBTI individuals or charged them significantly higher prices.
During the year LGBTI groups held virtual pride month events in keeping with safe social-distancing practices due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In previous years governors banned pride marches in Ankara, Antalya, Istanbul, Izmir, Gaziantep, and Mersin, citing public safety concerns. In 2019 the Constitutional Court found that Ankara’s blanket ban on LGBTI events, in place since 2017, was illegal. In August a court in Mersin rejected a legal challenge launched by KAOS-GL to the governor’s ban on the 2019 pride march.
Some LGBTI groups reported harassment by police, government, and university authorities. University groups complained that rectors denied them permission to organize, and some indicated they faced administrative investigations or other sanctions for participating in events. In July an Ankara administrative court found that the ban on the 2019 pride march imposed by the rector of Middle East Technical University was unlawful. The university had not challenged the decision at year’s end. Criminal cases against the 18 students and one faculty member arrested for organizing the pride march in 2019 continued; the defendants faced up to three years in prison. The court held a hearing on December 10, but the court declined to issue a ruling and scheduled another hearing for April 2021. Organizers reported that the arrested students were ineligible for scholarship and educational loans while the case continued.
LGBTI organizations reported the government used regular and detailed audits against them to create administrative burdens and threatened the possibility of large fines.
Dating and social networking sites catering to the LGBTI community faced content blocks. In August an Ankara court imposed an access ban on the social networking site Hornet and in September on the dating site Gabile.com. Authorities have blocked the dating site and application Grindr since 2013.