ISTANBUL - U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has strongly criticized Turkey for "large numbers" of detentions for social media postings criticizing the Turkish-led military operation into Syria against a Kurdish militia.
The report claimed the "crackdown violates the right to peaceful expression." Ankara is facing mounting diplomatic pressure over the country's wider human rights record.
Since January when Ankara launched the Operation Olive Branch military offensive into the Syrian Afrin enclave, critics claim dissent over the offensive has been crushed.
Citing figures from the Interior Ministry, HRW said 648 people were detained between Jan. 20 and Feb. 26 for social media postings criticizing the operation and expressing support for people holding street protests against the offensive.
The rights group said the Interior Ministry confirmed that further detentions have continued into March.
"Detaining and prosecuting people for tweets calling for peace is a new low for Turkey's government," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Turkish authorities should respect people's right to peacefully criticize any aspect of government policy, including military operations, and drop these absurd cases."
The report highlighted that many of the detainees included prominent figures of Turkish civil society, four members of Turkey's pro-Kurdish HDP, as well as academics.
HRW cited as one of most egregious cases the detention of 11 senior members of Turkish Medical Association (TTB), including its chairman, Rasit Tukel, for social media postings expressing concern for the humanitarian situation caused by the Turkish operation in Syria.
Turkish ministers have routinely dismissed concerns over Operation Olive Branch as "terrorist propaganda," insisting not a single civilian had been killed or injured by its forces.
The 11 doctors were subsequently released after an international outcry. In fact, HRW acknowledged that in most cases, those detained were subsequently released, subject to ongoing investigations.
But the rights group suggested the detentions, which usually occur late at night or in early-morning hours, are being used as a means of intimidation.
"I was visible from the outside [to the police]. I was watching TV at the time," said Nurcan Baysal, a journalist and human rights activist. "They tried to break in the door without ringing the doorbell. About 20 policemen entered my house wearing masks, and trained their automatic rifles on me."
Baysal's case was one of five cited by HRW for being detained for social media postings. The manner of her detention follows a similar pattern, according to the rights group, which accuses authorities of intimidating critics.
"After examining the cases, Human Rights Watch believes that some of the police raids and criminal investigations are being used as a form of punishment rather than out of genuine belief that criminal behavior has occurred," the HRW report said.
HRW claims its investigations revealed that in all the cases it studied, the social media postings were nonviolent and fell within international standards of freedom of expression. Ankara has so far failed to comment on the report, but has frequently dismissed such criticism as "terrorist propaganda."
The publication of the report comes as Ankara is under growing pressure from its western allies. At a European Union summit on Monday between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, EU head commissioner Jean Claude Juncker, and European Council president Donald Tusk, human rights concerns spoiled the gathering, which was intended to reset relations.
"What I can say is that I raised all our concerns," Tusk said. "As you know, it was a long list, including the rule of law and press freedom in Turkey, and Turkey's bilateral relations with member states. Also the situation in Syria."
Tusk added: "My position is clear — only progress on these issues will allow us to improve EU-Turkey relations, including the accession process."
To underline such concerns, police on Monday raided the dormitories of Istanbul's Bosphorus University and arrested a number of students. This was the second consecutive day of raids at Bosphorus University, one of Turkey's top schools, as police searched for students who protested against the Turkish-led offensive into Syria.
"These students were mistreated, suffering beatings and harassment while under custody," said an academic who teaches at Bosphorus University, speaking anonymously. "Now undercover policemen are roaming the campus looking for students to take under custody. Currently, 11 students are still under custody. Besides, our students are scared to be on campus and come to classes, as they are severely traumatized. Their right to an education is violated."
The detentions followed Erdogan's condemnation of anti-war protests, calling the students "communist, traitor youths" at a political rally. Observers point out that when Erdogan publicly targets an opponent, arrests invariably follow. The government disputes such accusations, insisting the judiciary is independent.
The student arrests have again prompted international criticism.
"Anti-war protesters labelled 'terrorists' by President Erdogan," tweeted Kati Piri, the European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur. "Critical thinking dangerous endeavour in 'new' Turkey."