The European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights on Monday heard Johan Vande Lanotte, a professor of law at the University of Ghent, present the findings of the Turkey Tribunal, a symbolic international tribunal convened in Geneva in September which concluded that torture and abductions perpetrated by Turkish state officials since July 2016 could amount to crimes against humanity.
Following a failed coup in July 2016, the Turkish government cracked down on civil society and carried out a purge of state institutions under the pretext of an anti-coup fight. The country has been experiencing a deepening human rights crisis in recent years, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with the aim of consolidating his one-man rule, has been systematically undermining the fundamental pillars of Turkey’s already imperfect democracy.
The EP subcommittee convened on Monday to debate the state of Turkey’s judicial system and respect for fundamental rights in law and in practice.
The session started with opening remarks by Marie Arena, chairwoman of the subcommittee.
“The situation in Turkey regarding human rights is alarming,” Arena said. “As the European Parliament, we criticize the arbitrary arrests and the practices of President Erdoğan’s government.”
Following Arena, Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, took the floor and said political opponents are systematically targeted in Turkey and that the judiciary is under the influence of politics, pointing to the mass arrests taking place.
After Dam, Rehşan Bataray Saman, co-chair of the Turkish-based Human Rights Association, said lawyers, activists and human rights defenders face oppression in the country.
Italian judge Luca Perilli, who spoke after Saman, pointed out that the rapid decline of the rule of law in Turkey predated the attempted coup of July 15, 2016 and started in 2013 with the violent reaction by the police to the Gezi protests and a corruption scandal implicating then-prime minister and current president Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle, after which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) decided to shake up the independent Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and assert political control over the judiciary.
Following Perilli, Lanotte took the floor and started by explaining the origin of the Turkey Tribunal, saying that it was established to adjudicate recent human rights violations in Turkey, including torture, abductions, shortcomings in freedom of the press and freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial after the decisions of UN bodies, institutions of the European Union and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) did not result in positive change with regard to the conduct of Turkish authorities.
The tribunal’s panel of judges included notable figures such as Prof. Em. Dr. Françoise Barones Tulkens, former vice chairperson of the ECtHR; Justice Dr. Johann van der Westhuizen, a former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa; and Prof. Em. Dr. Giorgio Malinverni and Prof. Dr. Ledi Bianku, who served as ECtHR judges.
They heard the testimony of witnesses who have been victims of human rights violations.
Lanotte said the Turkey Tribunal was held in Geneva between September 20-24, 2021 and that expert rapporteurs presented their reports on each topic. Judges heard 15 witnesses and announced the final opinion of the tribunal on September 24, 2021.
The Turkish government was invited to speak for itself but did not take advantage of this opportunity, Lanotte said.
Lanotte then went on to present a summary of the tribunal’s findings.
“The tribunal is of the view that there is a systematic and organized use of torture in Turkey,” Lanotte quoted the tribunal’s opinion as saying.
After the abortive putsch, ill-treatment and torture became widespread and systematic in Turkish detention centers, as evidenced by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Lanotte continued with the tribunal’s opinion about abductions allegedly perpetrated by Turkish officials.
“Abductions are a part of state action towards perceived political opponents,” according to the tribunal, and “complaints and allegations of abductions are not properly investigated.”
Enforced disappearances, which were common in Turkey during the 1990s, made a reappearance following the failed coup in July 2016. According to the report of tribunal rapporteur Johan Heymans, at least 25 people have been abducted by Turkish intelligence since 2016 in Turkey and no fewer than 68 have been abducted abroad.
Lanotte’s presentation continued with the tribunal’s findings on the impunity of perpetrators of rights violations. The tribunal concluded that impunity is a practice entrenched in the criminal justice system and underlined that the victims of rights violations are left traumatized by the lack of access to justice.
“As a result, the tribunal is of the view that these acts of torture and enforced disappearances cannot be viewed as mere isolated occurrences,” Lanotte quoted the tribunal opinion as saying. “Rather, in the opinion of the tribunal, they are to be considered as part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population that has taken place in Turkey at least since July 2016. Thus, the tribunal is of the view that the acts of torture and enforced disappearance committed in Turkey, in applications brought before an appropriate body and subject to the proof of the specific knowledge and intent of the accused, could amount to crimes against humanity.”
Sergey Lagodinsky, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and chair of the European Parliament’s Turkey Delegation, and MEP Nacho Sanchez Amor, both pointed to rights violations taking place in Turkey.
MEP Peter van Dalen suggested severe measures.
“We should boycott the Erdoğan regime, the clique around Erdoğan. We should block their bank accounts. We should bring them all before the International Criminal Court. We need solidarity with all the people who suffer every day in Turkey,” van Dalen said.
After speeches by MEP Bernard Guetta, Thomas Frellesen from the European External Action Service and Bernard Brunet from the European Commission, Dam, Saman, Perilli and Lanotte delivered their final remarks.
“I must insist that a country with still quite important relationships with the EU where the fact that crimes against humanity seem to done is a very grave, very important conclusion,” Lanotte said, referring to the Turkey Tribunal’s final opinion.
“We decided to prepare a request for the International Criminal Court, which is unusual and a hard task to do, but we think we need to do it, and we will try to do it in January-February,” Lanotte said.
Governed by an international treaty called the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court investigates and, where warranted, tries individuals charged with the gravest crimes of concern to the international community: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.