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Amnesty calls on Turkey to end criminalization of dissent

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Human rights advocacy group Amnesty International has called on the Turkish government to adopt a new anti-terrorism law to put an end to arbitrary detentions as well as politically motivated prosecutions in the aftermath of a new wave of mass arrests on terror-related charges.

“Amnesty International urges the Turkish authorities to bring its anti-terrorism legislation in line with international human rights law and standards and to refrain from criminalizing the peaceful exercise of human rights by unjustified investigations, punitive and arbitrary pre-trial detentions, or abusive prosecutions,” Amnesty said in a statement issued on Monday.

Turkey has a broad definition of terrorism in its law that includes crimes against the constitutional order and allows criminalization of expressions that justify, praise or incite people to use coercion or violent methods employed by a terrorist organization.

The Amnesty statement followed a new crackdown on dissent in Turkey that included the arrest of dozens of pro-Kurdish politicians, lawyers allegedly linked to the Gulen movement and activists, journalists and authors among other social media users across the country on terrorism-related charges.

“Turkey has adopted an unacceptably broad definition of ‘terrorist’ acts and individuals accused of ‘terrorism’ implicate a range of activities protected by the rights to freedom of expression, association, and political participation. All those who have been detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly must be immediately and unconditionally released,” the rights group urged on Monday.

On September 25 police detained 20 politicians and political activists, most of whom are officials in the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), for their alleged role in protests against the Turkish government’s tacit approval of the Kobane siege in October 2014, when Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants had laid a prolonged siege to the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria.

A Turkish court arrested 17 of the detainees, including Kars Mayor Ayhan Bilgen, on charges that include responsibility for the deaths and injuries of civilians and police officers and destruction of public and private property in 32 provinces across the country during the protests.

Amnesty cited a lawyer from the HDP Law Commission, saying that almost all the detained politicians and political activists had already been interrogated in 2015 under the same investigation file, with Bilgen previously held in pre-trial detention for eight months in 2017.

“Amnesty International believes that the rearrest of Ayhan Bilgen under the same allegations relating to the same alleged acts that are subject to an ongoing criminal prosecution is a violation of his right to liberty and seriously undermines his right to a fair trial,” the statement said.

Amnesty International also called on Turkish authorities to put an end to the use of pre-trial detention as a form of “punishment against political opposition,” urging immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners.

The statement also included the arrest of 47 lawyers in the Turkish capital of Ankara and seven other provinces on September 11 over their alleged links to the Gulen movement, inspired by US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deem the faith-based group a terrorist organization and accuse it of having carried out an attempted coup that claimed the lives of 251 citizens on July 15, 2016.

Amnesty said it is “deeply concerned that identifying lawyers with the profile and alleged crimes of their clients may have a chilling effect on the rights of the accused to a fair trial as it might dissuade lawyers from taking on the legal defense of those accused of terrorism-related charges and may hamper their right to the presumption of innocence.”

The rights group urged the release of lawyers who are detained solely for engaging in the legal profession, adding that Turkish authorities should allow lawyers to do their work freely, individually or in association with others, and protect the lawyers’ right to privacy by enforcing client/lawyer confidentiality in line with international human rights standards.

The statement finally mentioned 24 activists and social media users across the country who were detained on September 25 over provocative social media posts “inciting the public into enmity and hatred, degraded state officials and attempted to erode the elected government.”

Amnesty International said it believes the content of the social media posts forming the basis of the prosecuting authorities’ allegations are protected under the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under international human rights law.

“Amnesty International urges the authorities to put an end to the targeting of social media users, political opponents, public figures, and others simply for expressing their dissenting opinions by invoking legal provisions in Turkey’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws to criminalize dissent and silence opposing views,” the statement said.

“Since the attempted coup in July 2016, large-scale prosecution and detention of opposition politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, academics, and other civil society actors using broadly and vaguely defined anti-terrorism laws has led to the criminalization of legitimate acts, the creation of a climate of fear and the erosion of core human rights in Turkey.”

Within the scope of a massive purge launched under the pretext of an anti-coup fight days after the abortive putsch, the Turkish government removed more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs and imprisoned over 80,000 citizens over their alleged links to the Gülen movement.

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