New bill promises further gov’t encroachment on civil society in Turkey

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Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has proposed a bill to parliament that authorizes the interior minister to shut down associations and the president to freeze assets. The legislation represents a new round in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on civil society organizations after his government recently passed laws rendering bar associations dysfunctional and he accused the head of a nationwide medical association of being a “terrorist.”

When a series of draft law proposals under the title “Prevention of the proliferation and financing of weapons of mass destruction” were brought by the AKP to the parliamentary agenda last week, the opposition was at first silent. Shortly afterwards, however, it was discovered that the legislative package contained clauses concerning civil society organizations, which have nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. The bill grants the interior ministry the authority to shut down associations and the president to freeze assets, both without court orders. The package, which was swiftly passed through the parliamentary subcommittee, is expected to be voted this week in the general assembly.

The opposition has criticized the provisions allowing the interior minister to shut down associations or to remove their executives and replace them with government-appointed trustees and to limit their solicitation of donations.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has introduced a dissenting opinion to the draft in which it said the legislation would inflict irreparable damage to rights and freedoms.

The CHP also said authorizing the president to freeze assets without judicial oversight could lead to arbitrary violations of the right to own property. The CHP called the bill contrary to the rule of law and the principle of legality, arguing that the AKP is suffering from hubris and paving the way to a “one-man regime.”

In another dissenting opinion, deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) argued that the bill aims to pin down civil society organizations.

Erdoğan’s attempt to take control of bar associations

In 2020 the AKP came up with a series of legislative packages concerning civil society, drafted at Erdoğan’s instruction.

The ruling party amended the law on the Turkish Bar Association (TBB), a nationwide organization for legal professionals, and allowed the establishment of multiple bar associations in cities, in an attempt to alter the delegate composition in the elections for TBB president and to facilitate the election of a candidate close to Erdoğan. The opposition has appealed the law at the Constitutional Court.

Erdoğan had made harsh comments after bar associations in Ankara, Diyarbakır and İstanbul documented torture and ill-treatment of detainees with alleged links to Kurdish political groups or the Gülen movement, which the government accuses of orchestrating an abortive military coup in July 2016.

Erdoğan’s derogatory remarks against the head of medical association

Another nongovernmental organization targeted by Erdoğan is the Turkish Medical Association (TTB). Its president, Şebnem Korur Fincancı, has been accused by Erdoğan of being a “terrorist.” The TTB has regularly published monthly reports on the actual situation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Turkey, challenging the official figures released by the Ministry of Health and alleging that the real magnitude of the outbreak was 20 times greater than what was officially acknowledged.

Following the TTB’s reports, the ministry reviewed its data and began announcing much higher daily numbers. Some in government circles have called for the TTB’s closure. Erdoğan, however, announced that his government would pass legislation similar to that on bar associations and allow the establishment of new medical associations in every city.

Hundreds of associations and foundations shut down since 2016

After the failed coup of 2016, Erdoğan ruled the country under a state of emergency that was in force until 2018, during which his government summarily shut down a total of 1,748 associations and foundations by decree-laws. After nearly four years, courts have still not rendered judgments on appeals filed by these organizations against their closure.

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