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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits, and the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding three years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for a conviction of “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 for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a poll by Reuters conducted in 2018 as part of its Digital News Report: Turkey Supplementary Report, 65 percent of respondents in Turkey stated, “…concern that openly expressing their views online could get them into trouble with the authorities.”
Expression critical of the government was frequently met with criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups or terrorism. In October, during Operation Peace Spring, the government launched investigations against more than 800 individuals largely for social media posts deemed critical of government actions in northeast Syria. The Ministry of Interior reported in the same month it had detained 186 and arrested 24 individuals based on charges related to support for terror because of their social media posts.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. Based on HRA and HRFT statistics, during the first 11 months of the year, the government investigated more than 36,000 individuals and filed criminal cases against more than 6,000 people related to accusations they insulted the president or the state. In May a court sentenced construction worker Deniz Avci to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the president after he shared two cartoons depicting President Erdogan on social media. Avci’s lawyer noted the government had not opened any lawsuits against the cartoons’ creator or publisher.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied. The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” alleging ties to the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
Estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists ranged from at least 47 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to 136 according to the International Press Institute (IPI). The majority faced charges related to antistate reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed more than 200 media companies allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement, mostly in 2016-17, as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On September 6, an Istanbul court sentenced Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul chairperson Canan Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting the republic” and “insulting the president” for tweets she shared between 2012 and 2017. She remained free pending a legal appeal at years’ end.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators.
On December 2, the Diyarbakir public prosecutor requested charges be filed against former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen and the former members of the bar’s executive board for violating Article 301 of the penal code, the article that criminalizes, among other things, openly provoking hatred and hostility and insulting parliament. The charges stemmed from a statement the Diyarbakir Bar Association released on April 24, 2017, saying, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most-watched television stations and most-read national daily newspapers. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In April 2018, 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were convicted of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. In April six defendants returned to prison after an appeals court upheld their convictions. Following a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in September that dismissed most of the cases, only one former staff member remained jailed, but travel bans on the others remained in place. The original court set aside the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling and held a retrial for 13 of the original defendants in November, acquitting one and ruling against the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision for the other 12. The case continued at year’s end as the defendants appealed the decision.
Additional journalists whose detentions were considered politically motivated included four journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. Authorities arrested the four in 2016, and they remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. International human rights organizations condemned the sentences of six other journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison sentences on February 16 for alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt. On July 6, courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the closed Zaman newspaper of terrorism-related charges and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years’ imprisonment.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. For example, after serving three months in prison for “membership in a terror organization” and being acquitted in December 2018 due to lack of evidence, Austrian journalist and student Max Zringast remained under judicial control and was barred from leaving the country.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
In a spate of violence during the spring, six journalists from various outlets across the country were attacked in the space of five weeks. In May six individuals attacked Yenicag newspaper columnist Yavuz Demirag, ostensibly because they disagreed with his reporting. All three were released after questioning by authorities. In another attack in May, three individuals who attacked journalist Selahattin Onkibar were released under judicial control. The Turkish Journalists Union criticized the lack of investigations and blamed the increase in attacks against journalists on a sense of impunity on the part of those responsible for attacks.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against an individual or publication in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. In November reporters Ruken Demir (Mesopotamia Agency) and Melike Aydın (Jinnews) were placed in pretrial detention pending a hearing on charges of supporting a terrorist organization that reportedly stemmed from the content of their reporting.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of news media, online media, and books. The Ministry of Interior disclosed that, between January 1 and April 9, it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users whom it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that the country’s largest bookstore chain, D&R, removed some books from its shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The TPA reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities directly banned books because of objectionable content. For example, in September a court in Kars banned two books related to Kurds or “Kurdistan” for promoting “a terrorist organization.”
In July an Ankara court ordered domestic internet service providers to block in-country access to 135 web addresses representing a wide variety of platforms, including the independent news site Ozgur Gelecek (see Internet Freedom).
The government’s efforts to control media continued. A July report by Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (a think tank with close ties to the ruling AKP) identified some foreign media outlets reporting from the country (e.g., BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America) as “antigovernment” and “proterrorism” for stories the organization deemed too critical of the Turkish government or promoting terrorist-related perspectives. In response the Turkish Journalists Union filed a complaint about the report, stating that it made the outlets and their correspondents “public targets.” Other critics and free speech advocates, including the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, asserted the publication laid the groundwork for greater suppression of foreign reporting and correspondents.
Some journalists reported their employers fired them or asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. Failure to comply typically resulted in a dismissal, with media groups occasionally citing “financial reasons” as a blanket cause for termination.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Media and Law Studies Association codirector and lawyer Veysel Ok and reporter Cihan Acar were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment on the charge of “degrading the judicial bodies of the state.” The lawsuit was based on an interview Ok gave to the newspaper Ozgur Dusunce in which he questioned the independence of the judiciary.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the media generally favored the ruling AKP political party, including during the March municipal elections (see section 3).
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” For example, RTUK sanctioned television channel TELE1 for broadcasting a speech made by HDP cochair Sezai Temelli in parliament. As of August RTUK’s authority extended to online broadcasters as well. Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. Civil society organizations reported concerns about the high cost of the license and requirement to obtain vetting certification from local police.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of the year. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” For example, in July a court of appeals sentenced famous local singer and actress Zuhal Olcay to 11 months and 20 days in prison for allegedly insulting the president in a song at a concert.
The government also targeted lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, with a significant number of insult-related cases. As of December at least 4,912 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members had been arrested since July 2016 for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2018 the government launched 36,660 investigations against at least 6,320 individuals related to insulting the president, including 104 children between the ages of 12 and 15. Comprehensive government figures for 2019 were unavailable at year’s end.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In one example in July, two filmmakers were sentenced to four years, six months in prison for their 2015 documentary movie, Bakur, about the PKK. According to the court, the documentary was “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Many observers, however, viewed the prosecution as an example of the government using antiterror laws to limit freedom of expression.
Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and received an aggravated life sentence in February 2018. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned his life imprisonment sentence in July and recommended he face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization.” In November the court convicted Altan on the lesser charge but ordered his release for time served. He was released on November 4 but rearrested on November 12 following the prosecutor’s objection to his release. Economist Mehmet Altan was previously convicted, along with his brother Ahmet, on terror-related charges for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict against Mehmet Altan due to a lack of sufficient and credible evidence, and he was acquitted in the retrial.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in June a criminal court in Istanbul accepted an indictment charging two Bloomberg News reporters for their coverage of the country’s economy, alleging that their reports had undermined the country’s economic stability. If convicted, they could face as many as five years in prison.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism highlighted fewer instances of network shutdowns but the continuation of blocked access to several news and citizen journalism websites, as well as increasing self-censorship.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked Wikipedia and other news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove the offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information Technologies Institution (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($8,500 to $85,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In August the BTK announced it would block access to 135 web addresses. The action targeted opposition news portals and public media accounts–notably the Twitter account of HDP Istanbul member of parliament Oya Ersoy and accounts that posted updates about the continuing Gezi trial. The BTK stated the move was “to protect national security and public order, prevent crime or protect public health.” Domestic and international media organizations and activists condemned the decision.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that are responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, were required to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, the government blocked an additional 54,903 domain names during 2018, bringing the total number of blocked sites to 245,825. Of the new domain names that were blocked, 95 percent were blocked through a BTK decision.
Wikipedia has been blocked in the country for more than two years on the basis of national security concerns. In May, following two years of a state-imposed ban against the Wikipedia website, the Wikipedia Foundation brought a case against the country in the ECHR. In July the ECHR decided to expedite the case, due to its public importance. The Constitutional Court began deliberations on the website’s appeal of the ban in September and in late December ruled the government’s ban was a violation of the freedom of expression.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the first six months of the year, the company received 6,073 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content, the highest number of such requests worldwide.
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics lost their jobs or faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy during the year. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education. According to press reports, as of August, 273 departments for 78 public universities did not have any academic staff. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the Academics for Peace, for “terrorist propaganda” after they signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence against Kurds in the southeast and calling for peace, constituted a violation of their right to freedom of expression. Following the high court’s verdict, as of November lower courts acquitted 486 academics, and 336 cases remained pending. Most academics who were acquitted were not reinstated to their previous positions.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The state-run broadcaster TRT banned songs from the airwaves and defended the practice, stating it was respecting the law that forbids the broadcast of content encouraging persons to smoke or drink or that conveys “terrorist propaganda.” In September prosecutors accepted a criminal complaint against 18 rappers who took part in the #SUSAMAM project, a 15-minute rap video that examined a wide spectrum of social issues.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face during a protest. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRA and HRFT jointly reported that in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in 962 demonstrations. As many as 2,800 persons claimed they faced beating and inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests. In July students at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University were confronted by police spraying tear gas before being forcibly removed. The students had set up tents to protest the cutting of trees for the construction of a new state dormitory on campus.
On March 8, police used tear gas to break up an International Women’s Day march of several thousand demonstrators near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. President Erdogan claimed some participants continued their protest during the call to prayer, which he said constituted an insult to religion (a crime according to domestic law). Progovernment media extensively covered the events with columnists widely condemning the demonstrators and largely echoing Erdogan’s criticisms, although some in progovernment media criticized his use of religion in this way. The women’s committee in charge of organizing the event issued a statement denying the accusations and asserting police used excessive force against the demonstrators.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Domestic and international observers were admitted to observe one hearing.
The government also selectively restricted gatherings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Street and Ankara’s Kizilay Square, and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from gathering there. Although police removed barriers around the human rights monument in Ankara’s Kizilay Square in July, a mobile police presence remained. The government selectively banned many demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government. In September-October, Ankara police prevented mothers of military cadets sentenced to life in prison for their alleged involvement in the coup attempt from gathering outside the AKP headquarters building in Ankara. In contrast, during the same period, police did not prevent demonstrators from staging sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, instead requiring the group to hold the weekly gathering on a nearby side street. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu previously accused the group of exploiting the concept of motherhood to mask support for terrorism.
The governors of Kayseri and Istanbul banned an academic conference hosted by the Hrant Dink Foundation in their respective provinces. The conference was the sixth in a series of similar events across the country. In a press statement, the group said the conference was a legal action taken directly in line with its government-approved foundational charter and did not violate the sections of law pertaining to assemblies and demonstrations.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. For example, in January police prevented HDP lawmakers from holding a press conference in support of HDP member of parliament Leyla Guven’s hunger strike in front of the HDP Diyarbakir provincial headquarters. Police also violently disrupted a February demonstration in Van on the same topic.
In contrast with previous years, labor rights activists and political parties participated in largely peaceful marches throughout the country on May 1 (Labor Day). Turkish authorities detained 127 marchers in Istanbul who attempted to gather in Taksim Square (which the government specified as off limits).
The governors of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya, Gaziantep, and Mersin issued bans on public activities by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons during the year. In May and June, police broke up public events related to Pride Month using batons, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in Izmir and Istanbul. In Izmir groups reported police detained 16 persons for several hours, and police in Istanbul reportedly detained three to five individuals. Police in Ankara also responded to similar events with tear gas despite court rulings that the governorate’s blanket ban on public events by LGBTI groups was not legal. Activists reported that despite the court’s ruling, the government continued to impose individual bans on events and assemblies.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent from reopening associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security. In July the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures announced the government had closed 1,750 nongovernmental associations and foundations under state of emergency measures. Of those, the government allowed the reopening of 208 groups. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting LGBTI rights, and women’s groups in particular complained the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. In December the government closed Antakya Purple Solidarity Women’s Association, alleging the association was providing training without the requisite permissions. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In February the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it would seek life imprisonment for philanthropist Osman Kavala, the former editor in chief of opposition-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet, and 15 other journalists, artists, and human rights activists for “attempting to overthrow the government” by “organizing and financing” the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Human rights groups criticized the 657-page indictment as not containing “a shred of evidence” of criminal activities. Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kultur, an organization dedicated to cross-cultural and religious dialogue, had been in prison since 2017. Hearings in the trial began in June. Defendants asserted the evidence presented by the prosecutor did not amount to a crime, contained inaccuracies, and made conclusions based on supposition rather than fact.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued. The defendants were charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop entitled, Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security, held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. A court had released Kilic under judicial control in August 2018 while his case continued. In November the prosecutor recommended conviction for Kilic and five other defendants on terror-related charges and requested acquittal for the remaining five. The case continued at years’ end.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In March authorities lifted passport restrictions for 57,000 individuals, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement. The government declared Hakkari Province a “special security zone” and limited movement into and out of several districts in the province for weeks at a time, citing the need to protect citizens from PKK attacks.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allowed severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained that the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security.
For those barred from travel, some chose to leave the country illegally. In October a boat carrying 19 citizens seeking to flee the country capsized in the Aegean Sea, killing seven, including five children.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring displaced residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria. The renewal of conflict between the government and the PKK in the southeast in 2015 resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In some cases those displaced joined IDPs remaining from the conflict between security forces and the PKK between 1984 and the early 2000s. A reduction in urban clashes and government reconstruction efforts during the year permitted some IDPs to return to their homes. Overall numbers remained unclear at year’s end.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation. In Nusaybin the government built and distributed 778 housing units to residents whose homes were destroyed in antiterror operations.
The government took steps during the year to increase services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were displaced Syrians. A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea. The Directorate General for Migration Management reported 414,313 “irregular migrants” were apprehended as of November. UNHCR reported 185,000 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. Some 89,000 were deported to their countries of origin. Most of these individuals were from Pakistan or Afghanistan, according to UNHCR. Reports of larger-scale detentions of individuals, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, were also received. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 144 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Multiple sources reported that authorities denied entry to undocumented Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans during the year. There were reports that Turkish border guards intercepted or summarily deported Syrians and Afghans seeking asylum. In the days immediately following the Ministry of Interior’s announcement of stricter enforcement of refugee registration requirements in Istanbul, UNHCR confirmed that a small number of Syrian refugees had been involuntarily returned to Syria. Turkish border guards also reportedly killed or injured Syrian asylum seekers at the border (see section 1.a.). During the offensive by Syrian government forces in Idlib in June and July, there were reports of displaced Syrians in Turkey being forced to return back across the border into Syria (also see Refoulement).
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained closed to all but urgent humanitarian, medical, and family reunification cases since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, only three were open for limited civilian access. The rest were for military or military and humanitarian assistance only. Since November 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to gain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they can register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. In June in the Kucukcekmece district of Istanbul, tensions between local residents and Syrian refugees erupted into violence that continued for two nights and resulted in the destruction of several Syrian businesses. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers (also see Refoulement).
In certain districts of Istanbul, NGO staff members reported receiving verbal threats and harassment from residents of host communities, urging them not to help Syrians.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement and tens of thousands of deportations have taken place during the year. The government increased efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children and some specialized medical cases and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. During the year the government also increased enforcement in major cities, such as Istanbul, against those who were either unregistered or registered to live in another province. In one instance an operation in July in Istanbul apprehended 6,122 individuals, including 2,600 Afghans and 1,000 Syrians, who either did not have valid registration to reside in Istanbul or who did not have registration at all.
The Ministry of Interior stated that all refugees of nationalities other than Syrian apprehended during these operations were sent to “repatriation centers.” Multiple refugee advocacy and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, reported the refoulement of some Syrians throughout the summer, during active conflict in Idlib, and the fall. While some deported Syrians acknowledged they were living unregistered when they were apprehended and deported, others said they were living outside their city of registration or claimed to have been carrying valid government documents guaranteeing their ability to reside in Turkey. One international human rights group reported that 23 Syrians claimed they were forcibly repatriated although they had not been willing to sign a “voluntary return form” or signed only after being coerced or misinformed. The government contended all returns were voluntary.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to millions of Syrians while maintaining conditional/subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional/subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some contacts expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are supposed to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM). Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence, the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided free access to the public medical system to Syrians registered for temporary protection and subsidized medical care to other conditional refugees. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children. Many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier or meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,000 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 36.9 percent remained out of school as of September. According to UNICEF, nearly 526,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for durable solutions within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 100,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
Temporary Protection: Turkey adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government offered temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In 15 provinces the DGMM no longer processed new registrations beyond newborns and highly vulnerable Syrians. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care. By year’s end the DGMM had closed all but seven camps in five provinces. Residents of these camps numbered 63,443 at year’s end, according to authorities.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2018, 74,939 Syrians held valid residence permits; 2019 figures were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December there were at least 405,500 babies born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Interior Ministry.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
While the law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Parliament charges the Court of Accounts, the country’s supreme audit institution, with accountability related to revenues and expenditures of government departments. In 2018 it did not publish its annual report, however, and as of December had not begun its 2019 audit. Outside this audit system, there was no established pattern of or mechanism for investigating, indicting, and convicting individuals accused of corruption, and there were concerns regarding the impartiality of the judiciary in the handling of corruption cases.
During the year the government prosecuted law enforcement officers, judges, and prosecutors who initiated corruption-related investigations or cases against government officials, alleging the defendants did so at the behest of the Gulen movement. Journalists accused of publicizing the corruption allegations also faced criminal charges. In March a court sentenced 15 individuals involved in a 2013 corruption investigation of senior government leaders to life imprisonment. There were no reports that senior government officials faced official investigations for alleged corruption.
In October the Constitutional Court overturned a broadcast and publication ban on 2013 reports about corruption involving former ministers (four resigned at the time). As of December, however, the Radio and Television Supreme Council had yet to remove the ban on the reports, despite the court’s ruling.
Corruption: In August the government began investigations against two independent media outlets, T24 and Diken, for publishing reports based on tweets by an anonymous Twitter account (Fuat Avni) in 2014-15 related to allegations of corruption against the ruling AKP.
In August media outlets reported that a Ministry of Interior Affairs inspection found that in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, the former AKP mayor of the Ceylanpinar district, Menderes Atilla, appointed his daughter as his executive assistant with an annual salary of more than 250,000 liras ($42,500). The former mayor’s daughter, Tugce Atilla, was first appointed in 2015 but did not report to work until March 2019, according to the inspection. The ministry ordered Atilla to pay back the income she had not earned.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires certain high-level government officials to provide a full financial disclosure, including a list of physical property, every five years. Officials generally complied with this requirement. The Presidency State Inspection Board is responsible for investigating major corruption cases. Nearly every state agency had its own inspector corps responsible for investigating internal corruption. Parliament, with the support of a simple majority, may establish investigative commissions to examine corruption allegations concerning the president, vice president(s), and ministers. The mechanism was not used during the year. A parliamentary super majority (400 deputies) may vote to send corruption-related cases to the Constitutional Court for further action.