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HRW warns of deepening crackdown in Turkey

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The detention of journalists from independent newspaper Cumhuriyet, the closure of the remaining Kurdish media outlets in the country and the jailing of two elected mayors in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir over the course of two days is evidence of a deepening crackdown in Turkey, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

Police on Monday morning detained Murat Sabuncu, editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and 11 of its journalists and executives during the day. Detention warrants have been issued for at least three more, including former Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar. The Istanbul prosecutor alleges that the newspaper has “committed crimes on behalf of” both the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and what the government refers to as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (“FETÖ”), led by US-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

“Targeting one of Turkey’s last independent opposition newspapers with ludicrous charges shows the depths of the Turkish government and president’s crackdown,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch. “Over 160 media outlets have been closed down since the failed coup, and there are few critical voices that have not been ruthlessly silenced.”

The crackdown on Cumhuriyet comes after a weekend in which the government ordered 15 mostly Kurdish media outlets shut down, including the Dicle news agency, the Kurdish-language Azadiya Welat daily and Evrensel Kültür. A court ruling handed down on Sunday ordered two elected co-mayors in Diyarbakir jailed on terrorism charges.

Government decrees issued over the weekend also dismissed more than 10,000 civil servants and more than 1,200 academics; gave the president the power to appoint university rectors without on-campus elections; and ordered the recording of conversations between lawyers and their clients in detention, with the information available to prosecutors.

A Diyarbakir court on Sunday ordered the detention of the two co-mayors of Diyarbakir pending investigation on charges of “membership in an armed organization,” denying thousands of Kurds their right to local political representation. The co-mayors, Gülten Kışanak and Fırat Anlı, will be replaced with government-approved trustees who will run the municipality in their stead.

Kışanak, of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), was elected mayor in the 2014 municipal elections and assumed the position of co-mayor along with Anlı.

The prosecutor’s office said they are under investigation for offenses including calling for the autonomy of Turkey’s Kurds and making pro-PKK speeches at Kurdish new year’s celebrations, providing official vehicles to transport the bodies of PKK members, taking part in unlawful protests and making speeches allegedly promoting violence.

A Sept. 1 decree from the Cabinet, headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, says elected mayors and local councils suspected of aiding and abetting terrorist organizations can be removed from office and government-appointed trustees put in their place.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly demonstrated that investigation and prosecutions for terrorism-related offenses in Turkey are routinely conducted in an arbitrary manner, lacking concrete evidence and an adherence to due process. The application of these laws without evidence to democratically elected local government officials disenfranchises thousands of voters as well as unjustly penalizing the elected officials concerned, according to the HRW website.

Mayors and local councils have been removed and trustees put in their place in 27 municipalities in the Southeast since the decree was issued. A total of 30 elected mayors, including Kışanak and Anlı, are in detention, with many more under investigation on suspicion of terrorism.

Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and a party to several human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Following the attempted coup on July 15, the government declared a state of emergency and invoked its right to temporarily place extraordinary restrictions on (i.e. derogate from) some of the standards in the treaties. But its actions do not reflect any good faith effort to respect its human rights obligations. On the contrary, the actions clearly violate many guarantees, including the rights to freedom of expression, liberty, and security, and access to justice,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The jailing of Gültan Kışanak and Fırat Anlı without credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing is the most dramatic evidence to date of the government’s willingness to deny the people of southeastern Turkey the right to democratically-elected political representatives,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Jailing elected mayors and the assault on independent media seriously call into question whether Turkey’s political leaders have any regard for basic democratic principles.”

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