ISTANBUL - Nearly 680 non-governmental organizations in Turkey have condemned a new law aimed at increasing oversight of them, with critics saying it threatens to silence one of the country’s last independent and critical voices.
"It's creating a huge chilling effect," said Yaman Akdeniz, co-founder of the Freedom of Expression Society, "They [government] want to create fear, and it has been successful so far with this law; there is fear in civil society."
The controversial measure took effect three weeks ago, shortly after it received parliamentary approval. The law ostensibly seeks to comply with a United Nations Security Council demand on preventing the financing of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But international rights groups accuse the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of using the reform as a means to silence critical NGOs.
"The law calls itself one thing, fighting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But within this law is this ulterior motive of going after NGO's on a rather wide basis," said senior Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair Webb, of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
The rights group said the measure was rushed to parliament December 18 “without consultation with the civil society organizations it will affect most.” HRW also said in a recent statement that only six of the law’s 43 articles include means and regulations to combat the financing of terrorism.
Under the new law, if any NGO board member or professional employee is put on trial on terrorism offenses, the Interior Ministry or a judge can appoint a "trustee" to run the NGO for the duration of the court case.
"This system does not operate on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty," said Akdeniz. "Being prosecuted is enough for the court to appoint a trustee. When that person takes control of the association, if there is any funding, that trustee will spend it as they wish. For example, the first thing a government trustee can do is to sack the employees and replace them, and this will completely change the NGO."
The government has widely used trustees to replace elected mayors in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Dozens of mayors of the pro-Kurdish HDP have been removed following the launching of terrorism investigations.
"In Turkey, we see tens of thousands are charged and being prosecuted under Turkey’s very broadly written and vague anti-terrorism legislation, without any evidence that they are materially connected to armed groups," added Sinclair-Webb. "It's very easy to see this pattern of prosecutions applied to people critical of the government. So, NGOs critical of the government are going to be very vulnerable under this new NGO law. "
Akdeniz has first-hand experience of challenging the vagaries of Turkey's anti-terror laws, with much of his NGO's work helping to defend people facing prosecution for social media posts that violate the country's anti-terror laws.
"We are providing legal assistance to a lady who is facing nine separate prosecutions, all to do with her Facebook activity," said Akdeniz.
Under the new legislation, government permission is now required for projects receiving overseas funding, a move Akdeniz says is aimed at the European Union.
"One of the main reasons is to hit the EU because the EU announced it would not give substantial funding to Turkish authorities [because of human rights concerns] but instead give it to civil society. I think Ankara is reacting; if you are going to fund civil society, we are going to regulate civil society," said Akdeniz.
The measure could also target Turkish NGOs that distribute EU funding.
"Let's say I am funding a women's NGO whose members have been arrested, and under investigation, they [Interior minister] have the right to come to me and close down my organization," said Murat Celikkan, co-director of Hafiza Merkezi, an Istanbul-based human rights NGO, which last year supported 48 such groups with EU funds.
“With this new law, especially for rights-based NGOs which are very important for democracy and reforms in Turkey, it will be impossible to move to act as there is the threat of authorities confiscating everything you have or closing you down without even a trial or any judgment,” said Celikkan.
The government says Turkey faces terrorist threats, and its legislation meets international norms. The Interior Ministry has said it will publish regulations on how the law will be implemented.
"We don't know what will happen," said Celikkan, adding, "We have to wait for the regulations on how they will implement the legislation. Will they target pro-Kurdish NGOs, human rights NGOs, Islamic NGOs which are critical of the government or everyone?"