ISTANBUL - Human Rights Watch has warned that Turkey is drifting towards authoritarianism. The U.S.-based group claims in a new report that the rule of law in being eroded under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who, it says, has launched a crackdown on dissent and media freedom.
The 38-page Human Rights Watch report said President Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party were taking far reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protesters. The report's author, Emma Sinclair Webb, Human Rights Watch senior Turkey researcher, said the changes were deeply worrying.
"Basically over the last year, we’ve seen the Turkish government respond to political opposition with an extremely heavy handed approach, which is basically willing to sacrifice the rule of law, to erode judicial independence and really tear up the rule book and wield the stick against political oppositionists," said Webb.
The report said the rolling back of human rights accelerated after last year's nationwide anti-government protests against Prime Minister Erdogan, who was elected president in August.
President Erdogan insisted the protests had little to do with democratic dissent, but were rather a coup attempt. Sinclair Webb said that since the unrest, there has been a crackdown on the media and the introduction of draconian laws controlling the Internet, along with widespread prosecutions.
"There are some very serious prosecutions of protestors, for even attempting a coup against the government. They face a possible life imprisonment. So you have still got the crackdown against the Gezi protestors continuing, a year on. And very little justice for those who were victims of the massive police violence during the Gezi protests," said Webb.
The report also highlighted what it says is the steady undermining of the rule of law. It cited last December’s anti-corruption probe by the judiciary targeting senior ministers and their families. The government said it was an attempt to overthrow it and pushed through parliament legislation giving it special powers to exercise more control over the judiciary. Much of the legislation was later overturned by the Constitutional Court.
Sinclair Webb warned that the government was encroaching on the powers of the judiciary on a massive scale.
"They want to be able to control judicial appointments, and they basically have shown signs of wanting to have prosecutors and judges who simply do the government’s bidding and simply act according to the government’s interests. Once you start creating a judiciary who does that, you lose all independence of the judiciary and fundamentally undermine the rule of law," said Webb.
The government insists that special powers are needed because the country is facing an unprecedented threat to democracy. President Erdogan claims that a parallel state run by followers of a former ally, Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, is seeking to overthrow him. Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, denies the allegations.
Human Rights Watch did praise the government for its efforts to end the three-decade conflict with the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. The report highlighted government reforms giving minorities greater rights. But it warned that peace efforts have stagnated and called for the release of the many non-violent Kurdish political activists who have been held in jail for years, many of whom have not been convicted of a crime.
The report also cited the need to a lift the statute of limitations on political murders and torture, which is preventing redress for hundreds of victims and their families.
Thus far, neither the government or the president have commented on the report.