The bloody consequences of Turkey’s clashes with the Kurds

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115574″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]On 11 September, the peaceful silence of the early morning in Sürik, a tiny, unassuming village located in the barren yet beautiful mountains of Van, an eastern and mostly Kurdish populated province in Turkey, was broken by the sound of a violent explosion. The blast was so powerful that the earth shook; the adobe houses of the village rattled.

The Turkish military had been conducting operations in the region since early September, and clashes between soldiers and militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group  which has been fighting for Kurdish independence for more than four decades, had been more frequent than usual. The villagers saw military helicopters circling the usually serene skies above Çatak.

By the time the sun had melted the previous night’s fragile frost, one of the choppers had landed in an area behind the village. They took off a while later, taking two of the villagers with them.

The two men, Osman Şiban, 50, and Server Turgut, 63, reappeared two days later, in the ward of a military hospital in Van. While these are nowhere near rare occurrences in the Turkish southeast, the country would have never heard about the horrific torture the two men went through if it wasn’t for a news report published on the day of their reappearance by Cemil Uğur, a Van-based journalist with the Mezopotamya News Agency (MA). The report claimed they were beaten and pushed off a helicopter.

The Van governor’s office denied the allegations of torture, saying the two villagers, captured as part of an operation in the region named Yıldırım-10 Norduz (after an indigenous mountain goat), ignored commands to stop.

In the following days, other reporters—Adnan Bilen, the Van bureau chief of MA, Şehriban Abi from the feminist Kurdish news agency JinNews and freelancer Nazan Sala—all known for reporting on human rights violations in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, followed the story, filling in the details, talking to the families and witnesses, gathering documents from forensic invesetigations and prosecutors.

An interview with Siban from his hospital bed by Uğur on 17 September featured a photo of Şiban, whose bloody eyes (top) left little to the imagination about the horrors the two men must have had undergone, whom the journalist talked with in his hospital bed.

On 30 September, Turgut died after days in intensive care.

Less than a week after Turgut’s death, the homes of the journalists reporting on the case were raided and, a few days later, they were arrested on charges of “membership of a terrorist organisation”.

Journalists punished for reporting the news

More details of the unspeakable torture the two men had gone through came out on 2 November, when independent lawmaker Ahmet Şik, who travelled to the region in late October, revealed the details of his investigation at a press conference in parliament.

The two men were beaten on the chopper, later, pushed off — presumably after it landed – and then beaten to near-death by 150 gendarmerie soldiers in scenes in a “state-sanctioned lynching.”

Şık’s report also detailed other ways in which the state attempted to cover up the torture of the two villagers in addition to arresting the people who reported on the case. He later told the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA),whose lawyers represent three of the imprisoned Van reporters, that the journalists, who the authorities assert were detained on the basis of an investigation launched prior to the Van incident, were clearly being punished for their reporting on the ordeal of the two villagers.

 A ‘grave danger’ for all journalists

Lawyer Veysel Ok, co-director of the MLSA, notes that this punishment for reporting the news has the power to have serious repercussions for other journalists in Turkey, where 86 journalists are in prison.

He points to several alarming developments regarding the investigation into the journalists, saying, “In the journalists’ arrest order, the court accused these journalists of ‘reporting on social incidents against the state but in favour of the terrorist organisation PKK/KCK’ in order to incite agitation, and ‘making news in a continuous way, with variety and in high numbers.’”

To highlight the gravity of the possible consequences, “these journalists are all Kurdish and have been working in the region, and specifically in Van, for a very long time.”

“Their reporting has always shed light on human rights violations against Kurdish citizens in the region,” Ok said.

The arrest warrant also accuses the journalists of “criticising and harming the reputation of the anti-terrorism effort of the Republic of Turkey”. Another accusation is “identifying oneself as a journalist and making news reports for a fee without being a press card holder”.

“So the court is arguing that the four reporters are not ‘real’ journalists on the grounds that they don’t have an official press card issued by the president’s office,” Ok said. “There is not a single line in the Turkish legislation that stipulates that one needs a press card to be a journalist. Press card accreditation is necessary only for following government officials’ activities and the practice has been, as of late, to only issue them to those journalists who work for the pro-government media, so this press card mention in the warrant can have far-reaching consequences for any journalist in Turkey.”

The justifications put forth by the court are “unacceptable,” the lawyer added.

“The judiciary aims to create a chilling effect on all journalists, like the Sword of Damocles,” he said. “That’s why we find this case extremely important, care about it deeply and demand solidarity from fellow journalists, and everyone who cares about freedom of speech and not just in Turkey but all around the world.”

Ok also noted another worrying problem about the case; that the prosecutor who is conducting the investigation against the Van journalists is the same one that conducts the investigation on the lynching of the two villagers.

“The arrest decision is a very alarming one for journalism,” he said. “This is why our organisation has taken on this case. We will take this unlawful arrest first to the Constitutional Court and then to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).”

Ok said he was in Van on 27 October where he visited the four journalists in prison and noted that although they seem to be in good spirits, they also demand solidarity and support from the outside world against the injustice they are suffering for doing their jobs.

“Van is a far-off city, in the easternmost part of the country,” Ok said. “It is important that this case is not forgotten because it is not in Istanbul. These journalists have written news reports that should win an award. We will be in Van at the time of the first hearing to support these journalists and their journalism. They deserve the support of their colleagues and rights groups everywhere for bringing out the truth.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”55″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Campaigning 2020

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=””][vc_column_text]Veysel Ok is a prominent Kurdish lawyer specialising in free speech and press freedom. 

He provides pro-bono legal support to journalists, activists and academics who have been subjected to intimidation, surveillance, smear campaigns and harassment. His work has been instrumental in the release of several unlawfully detained journalists and writers.

Ok is one of the first to challenge the Turkish laws of accreditation which determine whether a journalist meets official requirements to do their job.

Ok has received a five month suspended sentence for ‘insulting the Turkish judiciary’.  Asserting his right to freedom of speech; Ok commented on the ‘loyalties’ of judges. This has landed him in a position of surveillance and harassment

Nevertheless, he stands strong in his fight for justice and freedom of expression for journalists in Turkey.


“In reality, the fight for human rights is crucial for everyone. In Turkey [all lives] are at risk for defending human rights; not just the work I do.

For the past twelve years, I have been fighting for the right to free expression for journalists and writers. For the past three years, we have continued this fight through at the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), where I am co-director. We provide legal support to journalists and activists who are in prison with no access to legal services. We stand by them and fight for their freedoms, we fight for access to information [and?] in Turkey. This is the wider work I do, and why MLSA is so important. 

This award is a win for the fight for free speech in Turkey. It shows that our work has found support from the international community, and that there is a greater international advance. This gives me incredible hope and pride. I would like to thank you one more time for this award.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Turkey’s judicial system: Under the government’s thumb

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”100019″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]In the wake of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, Turkey has become a “de facto permanent” emergency regime. The state of emergency, which has been extended six times, has become a convenient pretext for the government to crack down on freedom of expression.

The resultant purge has had draconian impacts: 5,822 academics sacked, 189 media outlets shuttered and 319 journalists arrested or prosecuted. The country’s judicial system has been decimated, with 4,560 judges and prosecutors dismissed. The government’s near-complete takeover of the judiciary and its direct defiance of the rule of law has debased freedom of expression in the country.

Examples of how the executive arm of the Turkish government is pulling the strings of the judiciary are not hard to find.

“Public indignation”

On 31 March 2017, the chief judge and two members of the Istanbul 25th High Criminal Court, who ordered the release of 21 journalists, and the prosecutor, who requested the releases, were suspended and later faced a disciplinary hearing. The 21 journalists were kept waiting in a prison van until a new arrest and detention order was issued by another court, which was under an onslaught of attacks from pro-government social media accounts.

Judicial Council deputy president Mehmet Yilmaz explained the reasoning behind the suspension of the judges: “The evidence has not been collected…and the release decision issued…has caused public indignation and harmed public conscience.”

If members of the judiciary can be suspended because their decision has caused “public indignation and harmed public conscience”, this suggests that judges in Turkey are without any protection from external pressures.

In another case, on 31 January 2018, a court ordered the release of Amnesty International’s Turkey chair Taner Kilic, but just hours later another demanded his re-arrest. Amnesty’s secretary general Salil Shetty said: “Over the last 24 hours, we have borne witness to a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions. To have been granted release only to have the door to freedom so callously slammed in his face is devastating for Taner, his family and all who stand for justice in Turkey.”

Taner’s renewed detention came after a decision from the Istanbul trial court to conditionally release him before his trial. However, after the prosecutor appealed, a second court in Istanbul accepted this appeal and quashed Taner’s release.

“I do not know why I was imprisoned a year ago and why I was released”

In another example of government interference, Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, who reported for Die Welt newspaper, was arrested on 27 February 2017 in Istanbul. At the time, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, summarised the accusations against Yücel saying: “He is not a correspondent; he is a terrorist. … This person hid in German consulate for a month as a representative of PKK, as a German spy. We have recordings, everything. This is the very spy terrorist.”

Erdogan also reportedly said that Yücel would not be released so long as he was the president. Yücel’s detention continued for almost a year without charge.

On the eve of his official trip to Germany on 15 February 2018, prime minister Binali Yildirim responded to protests and open requests from the German government for Yucel’s release. He said: “I think that a development will take place soon.” In a joint press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel on 15 February 2018, he said: “What is necessary shall be done within the scope of the rule of law; what is required of us is to clear the way for the courts. … I hope that the trial will take place within a short time and a result will be achieved.”

On 16 February 2018 the Istanbul High Criminal Court accepted an indictment against Yücel that sought an 18-year sentence, yet the court also simultaneously ordered his release. Yücel flew to Germany on the same day. No international travel ban was imposed, despite the high sentence the prosecutor was demanding, which is the regular practice in “terror” related cases.

After his release, Yücel reported that he was given a 13 February 2018 ruling by the Third Criminal Peace Judgeship which detailed an order for his continued detention. “I am free despite this. I do not know why I was imprisoned a year ago and why I was released today. Is it not strange? Anyway, it does not matter. After all, I know that neither my jailing — more precisely my being taken as a hostage a year ago — nor my release today is in accordance with the rule of law at all. I know this very well.”

It’s clear that Yücel’s release and ability to leave the country were the result of political deals and the high criminal court was taking orders from the executive branch of government.

“Attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”

Within hours after Yücel’s release, six other individuals, including five journalists, were issued life sentences for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”. Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazli Ilicak, Yakup Şimşek, Fevzi Yazıcı and Şükrü Tuğrul Özsengül were all handed sentences after being convicted of involvement with the attempted coup, despite a clear lack of direct evidence.

“The court decision condemning journalists to aggravated life in prison for their work, without presenting substantial proof of their involvement in the coup attempt or ensuring a fair trial, critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey,” said David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

The constitutional court decided on 11 January 2018 that the freedom of expression and liberty of the two journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay had been violated. Following the decision, deputy prime minister and government spokesperson Bekir Bozdağ stated on his Twitter account that the constitutional court had overstepped its boundary drawn up by the constitution and legislation. Under pressure from the government, the decisions made in the cases of Alpay and Altan were not implemented by Istanbul courts. This was due to almost the same reasoning as used by the government spokesperson.

Despite the dictum that the court’s decisions are final and binding on the legislative, executive and judicial matters, the courts of the first instance have not implemented the decision.

Another disappointment for the freedom of all arrested journalists

In another case, after an application by journalist Sahin Alpay, the constitutional court delivered the decision on 19 March 2018 that found Alpay’s rights were violated under the European Convention on Human Rights. By contrast, the Istanbul court followed the ruling this time and issued Alpay’s conditional release. Surprisingly, nothing was heard from the executive on this occasion. This development has been regarded by some as the government’s tactical move to avoid a possible European Court of Human Rights ruling on related pending cases to the effect that the constitutional court is not an effective remedy.

Turkish human rights lawyer Kerem Altıparmak tweeted that the Turkish government’s move was intended to send a message to the ECtHR that the constitutional court is a viable domestic remedy. Yaman Akdeniz, another prominent law professor and rights defender, said that ECtHR’s rejection of examination of the cases of journalists relying on the Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights is another disappointment for the freedom of all arrested journalists.

“A disgrace to Turkey’s justice system”

On 9 March 2018 a Turkish court sentenced 25 journalists to imprisonment on the grounds of allegedly being members of a terrorist organisation. The prosecutor’s primary evidence was that the journalists had criticised the Turkish government and Erdogan on social media. On these charges, 23 of the accused journalists were given between two and seven years in prison. Nina Ognianova, the Committee to Protect Journalists Europe and Central Asia programme co-ordinator, described the decision as “a disgrace to Turkey’s justice system”. She called on authorities to drop the charges on appeal.

The judiciary’s exposure to outside influences and pressures have turned the Turkish judicial system into a nightmare for journalists, academics, rights defenders, philanthropists and even judges themselves.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1524736212391-dfe96d06-6795-2″ taxonomies=”8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row]