Hundreds of people have been detained in Turkey for commenting or reporting on Turkey’s recent military offensive in northeast Syria and are facing absurd criminal charges as the government intensifies its crackdown on critical voices, said Amnesty International in a report published on Thursday.
The report, titled “We can’t complain,” reveals how last month’s offensive — Operation Peace Spring — was accompanied by a wave of repression in Turkey which swept up anyone who deviated from the government’s official line. Journalists, social media users and protesters have been accused of “terrorism” and subjected to criminal investigation, arbitrary detention and travel bans. If prosecuted and found guilty, they could face lengthy prison sentences.
“As the tanks rolled across the Syrian border, the government took the opportunity to launch a domestic campaign to eradicate dissenting opinions from media, social media and the streets. Critical discussion on issues of Kurdish rights and politics has become even further off limits,” said Amnesty International’s Europe director, Marie Struthers.
“Language around the military incursion was heavily policed, and hundreds of people who expressed their dissenting opinions about Turkey’s military operation were rounded up and are facing investigations under anti-terrorism laws.”
On Oct. 10, a day after the offensive began, RTÜK, Turkey’s broadcasting regulatory body, warned media outlets that there would be zero tolerance of “any broadcasting that may negatively impact the morale and motivation of […] soldiers or may mislead citizens through incomplete, falsified or partial information that serves the aims of terror.”
Two journalists were detained on the same day. Hakan Demir of the Birgün daily newspaper was questioned over a tweet on the paper’s official Twitter account based on an NBC report stating that “Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas.”
Meanwhile Fatih Gökhan Diler, managing editor of the Diken news website, was detained after publication of an article with the headline “SDF claim: Two civilians lost their lives.” Both journalists were accused of “inciting enmity and hatred” before being released with overseas travel bans pending the outcome of criminal investigations.
Police also burst into the home of journalist and human rights defender Nurcan Baysal at 5 a.m. on Oct. 19.
Journalist Özlem Oral was detained on the same day and questioned over tweets criticizing Operation Peace Spring that were posted on a Twitter account not even her own. She was released the next day with an overseas travel ban, required to regularly report to a local police station and not to leave İstanbul, where she lives.
On Oct. 27 lawyer and columnist Nurcan Kaya was detained at İstanbul Airport for criticizing the offensive by tweeting “We know from experience how everything you call a peace operation is a massacre.” She was released after questioning the same day but received an international travel ban.
In the first week of the offensive alone, 839 social media accounts were under investigation for “sharing criminal content,” with 186 people reportedly taken into police custody and 24 remanded in pretrial detention, according to official figures.
Operation Peace Spring has also been used by the government as a pretext to escalate its crackdown on opposition politicians and activists. Several MPs are currently subject to criminal investigations including Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who is facing a criminal probe for comments he made in the media and a tweet that read: “Government needs to know this, this is an unjustified war and a war against the Kurds.”
According to lawyers from the bar association in Şanlıurfa province, at least 54 people were taken into police custody by counterterrorism officers on Oct. 9 and 10. Among them were members of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as well as members of left-wing opposition trade unions.
Within the first week of the military offensive at least 27 people, many of whom were affiliated with HDP, were detained in Mardin province on terrorism-related charges. Detainees included the elected mayor of the town of Nusaybin. The government later replaced her with the unelected district governor.