LONDON - Turkish authorities have detained hundreds of people for posting comments on social media that questioned or criticized the country's military offensive in Syria, according to Amnesty International.
The human rights group says dozens of innocent people, including many journalists, are facing criminal charges over legitimate criticism of the operation, which began last month following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area.
Turkey says the incursion, code-named Operation Peace Spring, is targeting what it calls "terrorist groups" — which includes Kurdish fighters who helped defeat Islamic State. Dozens of civilians have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes.
Amnesty says criticism of the operation in Turkey has been stifled by the government. In the majority-Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, police have blocked protests and arrested demonstrators.
"The oppression of our people, the cruelty, has reached the point where even stepping outside to make the most democratic reaction faces a very harsh response," said Kurdish lawmaker Musa Farisogullari of the People's Democratic Party (HDP).
'Morale and motivation' of soldiers
Street protests aren't all that have been banned. Turkey's broadcasting regulatory body has warned media outlets that there would be zero tolerance of "any broadcasting that may negatively impact the morale and motivation of … soldiers."
The government is carefully monitoring online criticism of its military operation, says Amnesty's Milena Buyum.
"Social media users, journalists, members of the mainly Kurdish political party, the People's Democratic Party, have been particularly targeted because they either questioned or opposed the military operation in northern Syria," Buyum said.
Amnesty has collated official figures showing that 839 social media accounts were under investigation for purportedly "sharing criminal content" in the first week of the offensive, with 186 people detained.
Detentions, travel bans
"Some journalists who were simply relaying other media sources' information about the military operation were detained, as well," Buyum said. "Those released from police detention were released with foreign travel bans."
Amnesty says the military operation in Syria has been used as a pretext to escalate the crackdown on opposition politicians and activists as the space for free expression shrinks.
"Especially in the last several years, in the aftermath of the (2015) coup attempt, this has become even harder," Buyum said.
Turkey says the crackdown is aimed at preventing the spread of what it calls "terrorist propaganda."