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Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard

17 September 2018

A founding member and state party of the Council of Europe legally bound to nearly all of the fundamental human rights treaties, a bridge between “West” and “East” poised for EU membership. In the not too distant past, many considered Turkey an up and coming story of democratic transformation. Today human rights in Turkey are significantly at risk.

Nowadays Turkey displays an increasingly restrictive environment with distorted checks and balances and undermined rule of law. Turkey has become one of the illiberal state models in the world with thousands of journalists, academics, and government critics sacked, imprisoned, and charged with terrorist or treasonous crimes.

Throughout its volatile political history, it has never been safe or easy to defend human rights in Turkey. However, the current hostile context puts human rights defenders, whose nature of work is to reveal human rights violations and abuses by both state and non-state actors, in a highly dangerous position. The international community needs to be reminded of their courage and their struggles, and of the solidarity the international community owes to them at both personal, societal and high diplomatic levels.

Onur Hamzaoğlu, Şebnem Korur Fincancı and Reha Ruhavioğlu are three individuals who, despite the increasing difficulty and mounting pressure posed by the government, continue to defend human rights in Turkey. Hamzaoğlu and Korur Fincancı are subjects to criminal trials, facing 8 to 14 years in prison respectively.

The NHC calls on the Turkish authorities to drop charges against Hamzaoğlu, Korur Fincancı and other human rights defenders prosecuted in Turkey for their lawful exercise of their rights as determined by international law.

The NHC calls on the government of the Netherlands and the EU to double its efforts to preserve fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in Turkey and protect those who defend it.

Below are the stories of three individuals who, despite great personal risk, continue to defend human rights in Turkey. They are written by Tan Tunali and illustrated by Marco Lambooij for the Netherlands Helsinki Committee.

Onur Hamzaoğlu 

Onur Hamzaoğlu is a professor of public health and member of the Turkish Medical Association. He is convinced that both academics and health professionals have a duty to serve the public and protect public health. Hamzaoğlu’s best known academic work is research on the implications of environmental deterioration on the health of local populations. He found that due to the heavy industrial pollution in the Dilovasi area, close to Istanbul, the likelihood of cancer for people living in the area is three times higher than in other areas of Turkey.

Despite colleagues praising the research, local authorities who are actually responsible for protecting Dilovasi citizens, opened court cases against Hamzaoğlu. They claimed that the research sought to “cause panic among the public” and, along with local companies, started a campaign to discredit Hamzaoğlu’s research.

As with so many rights defenders and academics, the failed coup attempt and its aftermath have had a huge impact on Hamzaoğlu’s life. A few months after the coup attempt, he, along with 18 other colleagues, were fired from university by emergency decree. All of them were signatories of a petition protesting the violence perpetrated by Turkish security forces against the Kurdish population in the southeast. “We won’t be part of this crime,” they stated in the petition. Turkish authorities targeted, purged, and put on trial and/or imprisoned many of the petition’s signatories. Despite their expulsion, they continued their work saying, “We will return (to our jobs),” and continued teaching in the Kocaeli Solidarity Academy set up by purged academics.

Hamzaoğlu’s opposition to war also cost him his freedom. He was accused of “terrorism propaganda” and “provoking the people to hatred and enmity” after a press release, put out by an umbrella organisation uniting several political opposition groups, criticized Turkey’s military incursion in the Syrian-Kurdish province of Afrin. Hamzaoğlu spent 160 days in pre-trial detention and was released on 23 July 2018 following his first court hearing.

As with so many rights defenders and academics, the failed coup attempt and its aftermath have had a huge impact on Hamzaoğlu’s life.”

Hamzaoğlu has since continued his important work, writing for a medical journal, researching and lecturing. Due to the current political climate in Turkey, the work of people like Hamzaoğlu and countless others is more important than ever. They need to be heard. Despite his release, Hamzaoğlu is not yet free, his court case continues with the following hearing set for January 2019. If convicted he could face up to 8 years in prison.

Şebnem Korur Fincancı

Şebnem Korur Fincancı is a forensic doctor and, for decades now, an ardent defender of human rights. She is renowned for her fight against torture, writing columns on medical ethics and documenting torture cases. She also heads the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, which documents torture cases and other serious human rights violations and helps victims with rehabilitation and legal assistance.

In 1999 Korur Fincancı contributed to the Istanbul Protocol, a document recognized by the UN as a standardized set of guidelines for the documentation of torture and its consequences. In the following years, Korur Financı travelled around the world to lecture about the protocol’s implementation.

In June 2016, Korur Fincancı became the focus of news reports around the world. This time, torture wasn’t the subject, but terrorism instead.  The Turkish government had accused her of terrorism propaganda for which she spent ten days in pre-trial detention. This was all due to her participation in a solidarity campaign with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem. Along with Korur Fincancı, over 50 other prominent Turkish authors, journalists, and human rights defenders have participated in the solidarity campaign by working for a day as “co-editor-in-chief” of the newspaper in order to help withstand government pressure for its closure.

While international pressure helped secure prison release for Korur Fincancı and two fellow campaigners, Turkish representative of Reporters Without Borders Erol Önderoğlu and author Ahmet Nesin, they are not yet in the clear. Their court case is still ongoing; and, if convicted, they face up to 14 years in prison.

Korur Financı is already quite experienced when it comes to politically motivated court cases and other intimidation tactics by the Turkish authorities. In 2004 she was removed from her position as the Head of the Department of Istanbul University’s Forensic Medicine Faculty and later from her position as Chairperson of the Institute of Forensic Medicine. After fighting these decisions in court, she was reinstated as Chairperson and currently continues to teach at Istanbul University.

Korur Fincancı’s career-long fight against torture unfortunately drags on and, sadly, is as relevant and pressing as ever.”

The scores of torture cases reported by Korur Financı and the legal harassment she has endured herself during her decades long career, illustrate that human rights violations, which we hear increasingly and unescapably about today, are nothing new in Turkey. In the early 2000s, under the influence of the EU accession process and the AKP government’s stated zero tolerance policy, the number of torture cases dropped in comparison to their relatively common occurrence in the 80s and 90s. However, today torture is back in Turkey. Following the failed coup attempt of 2016 human rights organisations documented many torture cases in police custody, detention, and prison. Korur Fincancı’s career-long fight against torture unfortunately drags on and, sadly, is as relevant and pressing as ever. In a recent column for the Turkish daily Evrensel she explained how torture serves to incite fear in a population, “therefore fighting against torture means fighting for all our rights.”

Reha Ruhavioğlu

Reha Ruhavioğlu is a middle school computer science teacher in Diyarbakir, the capital and largest town in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region of Turkey. He has always been passionate about human rights. However, it wasn’t until the night of 28 December 2011, when Turkish fighter jets killed 34 civilians from the small town of Roboski on the Iraqi-Turkish border, that he started to dedicate much more of his time to human rights in Turkey.

Ruhavioğlu became involved with the human rights organisation Mazlumder, documenting the personal stories of the 34 killed in the Roboski massacre. Mazlumder, founded in the early nineties, is best known for fighting against violations of freedom of religion, like the headscarf ban at universities and in public offices. Ruhavioğlu, a practising Muslim, easily identified with the organisation’s principles.

After joining Mazlumder in 2012, Ruhavioğlu worked in several capacities for the office in Diyarbakir. Since joining, Ruhavioğlu has witnessed significant changes in Diyarbakir. In 2013, the Turkish government initiated a ceasefire and a peace process with the armed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). As a result, repressions decreased, and the political and cultural life in the region became freer.

Only two years later the cease-fire fell apart and peace process collapsed, causing violence to engulf the region once again. Clashes took place between state security forces and the youth wing of the PKK. The Turkish state restricted the population by imposing curfews and used heavy artillery to bomb and besiege the cities of the region. Thousands of people died while hundreds of thousands more lost their homes.

After the state lifted city curfews, Ruhavioğlu joined Mazlumder’s delegation in visiting the embattled town of Cizre at the Syrian border. They found evidence of widespread human rights violations by Turkish security forces. The detailed report Ruhavioğlu and his colleagues wrote sparked controversy, not only with the general public, but within Mazlumder itself.

In particular, the report’s denunciation of government crimes and reportage of human rights violations faced harsh criticism by Mazlumder’s branches based in western Turkey. The organisation’s internal turmoil eventually led to a fall-out and the court ordered closure of 16 of Mazlumder’s 24 offices in early 2017. These included all offices and in the southeast region and the Diyarbakir office where Ruhavioğlu worked.

We used to be guided by hope in defending human rights, but now we simply persist.”-Reha Ruhavioğlu

Following the closure Ruhavioğlu and other co-activists founded a new NGO called Hak Inisiyatifi (The Rights Initiative). Like Mazlumder, Hak Inisiyatifi is an initiative, which takes Islamic values and principles into account. Increasing government repression and widespread fear in the region required Hak Inisiyatifi to resort to creative – and subtle – ways of mobilizing people. Despite mounting pressure, Ruhavioğlu remains positive: “We used to be guided by hope in defending human rights, but now we simply persist.” One way to persist is through organising educational projects that teach children about human rights.

Along with the closure of 16 Mazlumder local offices, the stories written by Ruhavioğlu about the 34 victims of the Roboski massacre have disappeared from the archives. Ruhavioğlu is currently working on a Roboski museum to tell the victims’ stories and ensure the public is made aware.