LGBTI activists in Turkey: Defending human rights in a climate of fear

By Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

 “Most LGBTI people in Turkey today are living in more fear than ever before,” an activist tells me when we meet in a café in Istanbul on a cloudy day in February. She is too afraid for me to share her name.

“With the crackdown on freedom of expression, spaces for LGBTI people to be themselves are shrinking. They see no hope, no future. Many of us have either moved to other countries or are thinking of leaving.”

It is a far cry from the Turkey of even just a few years ago, when LGBTI organizations were increasingly visible and vocal - the last Istanbul Pride in June 2014 saw tens of thousands of people marching through the streets in a display of joyous confidence.

But all that is now a distant memory, especially since the crackdown that followed the failed coup attempt of July 2016.

Most LGBTI people in Turkey today are living in more fear than ever before
LGBTI activist

For the last three years, Pride marches have been banned in Istanbul and Ankara, while other Pride events such as LGBTI film festivals have been shut down “due to social sensitivities”.

Last November, the Ankara Governorate used powers under the state of emergency, in place since the coup attempt, to impose an indefinite ban on all public events by LGBTI organizations in the city, citing “public safety”, “safeguarding general health and morals” and “safeguarding the rights and freedoms of others”.

These blanket bans threaten the very existence of LGBTI organizations and reverse the progressive trend that existed before the attempted coup to counter homophobia and transphobia.

But it is not just LGBTI organizations that are under fire.

A new report by Amnesty International published today reveals how an escalating assault on human rights defenders has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey, curtailed the vital work of organizations and left swathes of Turkish society in a state of constant fear.

Weathering the storm: Defending human rights in Turkey’s climate of fear reveals how precious few areas of Turkey’s once vibrant activist community have been left untouched by the ongoing state of emergency. 

A nationwide crackdown has resulted in mass arrests and dismissals from public sector jobs, the hollowing out of the legal system and the silencing of human rights defenders through threats, harassment and imprisonment.

The state of emergency, declared as a temporary exceptional measure almost two years ago, was renewed for a seventh time last week, stretching its draconian rule to two years. Under its imposition, human rights have been decimated.

More than 100,000 people have faced criminal investigations and at least 50,000 have been imprisoned, pending trial, due to their perceived support for the coup. More than 107,000 public sector employees have been summarily dismissed for the same reason.

Anti-terrorism laws and trumped-up coup-related charges are used to target and silence peaceful, legitimate dissent. Prominent journalists, academics, human rights defenders and other activists have been subjected to arbitrary detention and - if found guilty in unfair trials - long prison sentences.

Osman İşçi, general secretary of the Human Rights Association, told Amnesty International: “The aim is to maintain the climate of fear. It is arbitrary. It is not predictable. It cannot be effectively challenged so there is impunity.”

Speaking to me in her office at the Istanbul university, human rights defender Professor Şebnem Korur Fincancı said: “I have a small bag ready at home”. She has it ready in case of a dawn police raid to detain her.

The crackdown on dissent has had an inevitably damaging effect on freedom of expression. Lawyer and human rights defender Eren Keskin, who is facing 140 separate criminal charges, said: “I try to express my views freely but I am also acutely aware of thinking twice before speaking or writing.”

Online posts can also land people in jail.

Extraordinary measures are becoming increasingly normalized in Turkey – with human rights activists often the target
Milena Buyun, Amnesty International

After the Turkish military offensive in Afrin, Northern Syria, began on 22 January 2018, hundreds of people who expressed their opposition to the operation were targeted.

By 26 February, 845 people were detained for social media posts, 643 people were subject to judicial proceedings and 1,719 social media accounts were under investigation in connection with posts about Afrin, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Meanwhile, more than 1,300 NGOs have been permanently closed down under the state of emergency for unspecified links to “terrorist” groups. They include organizations that once carried out vital work supporting groups such as survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence, displaced people and children.

“There is now a huge gap in the provision of advice and support to survivors. It really breaks my heart,” Zozan Özgökçe of the Van Women’s Association told me. The organization, which helped raise children’s awareness of sexual abuse and provided training in leadership and financial literacy for women, is one of those closed down.

Many LGBTI organizations are also among those shut down. Those that remain have reported a sharp increase in intimidation and harassment targeting individuals or planned events.

Extraordinary measures are becoming increasingly normalized in Turkey – with human rights activists often the target. Yet as I found when I travelled the country over the last couple of months, in spite of this onslaught there are still brave people willing to stand up and speak out.

“In Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara we can still meet each other but it is getting very hard. We used to have about 30 associations around the country - most of them are now closed and not functioning,” the LGBTI activist told me. And like many others, she is not giving up hope just yet.

This article was first published by Pink News here.

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