Turkey’s military offensive in Afrin looks set to dominate news coverage of the region for weeks to come.
Which is no surprise. The operation is taking place on the much bigger stage of the war in Syria, Russia and the US are both deeply involved, and the UN is anxiously assessing the scale of the impact on the already dire humanitarian situation, the number of displaced people running into the thousands.
But back across the border in Turkey, one underreported aspect of the Afrin offensive is yet another domestic crackdown. In the past week more than 150 people, including at least four journalists, have been detained in various locations in Turkey on the grounds that they had criticised the Afrin operation in social media posts. They’re being investigated for “making propaganda for a [terrorist] organisation”.
This is the new normal in Turkey. Almost any criticism of government officials or policy is quickly recharacterised as a “threat to national security”, “terrorist propaganda”, an “insult” or similar.
Indeed, since the bloody coup attempt of 2016, the Turkish authorities have launched a truly huge crackdown. It has been wide-ranging and frighteningly indiscriminate. Criminal investigations have been opened against a staggering 150,000 people accused of links to the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation”, which the government claims masterminded the attempted coup. More than 50,000 remain in prison on remand. Thousands more have been detained, accused of links to the armed Kurdish PKK or other banned organisations. More than 100,000 public sector workers, including a quarter of the judiciary and hundreds of academics, have been arbitrarily dismissed under state of emergency powers. At least 100 journalists are in jail, the most in any country in the world.
Meanwhile, if they haven’t already been sacked or arrested, numerous academics and other public sector workers have been trying to leave the country, part of a dispiriting Turkish brain drain . It’s hard to see all this as anything other than a vast opportunistic backlash against political opponents (real and perceived), as well as multifarious critics and anyone deemed inconvenient by the Ankara authorities.
To that end, it’s no exaggeration to say Turkey’s entire civil society has come under attack. Toward the end of 2016, some 375 non-government organisations (NGOs) – some of which were providing care for the massive numbers of Syrian refugees and people internally displaced in the country – were forcibly shut down under a draconian executive decree.
Which is where it gets personal. Because my counterpart in Istanbul, Idil Eser, the director of Amnesty International Turkey, is one of those swept up in this frightening purge. Alongside her colleague Taner Kılıç, the chair of Amnesty International Turkey, as well as another nine human rights workers, she’s on trial for terrorist offences. According to the indictment, Idil is said to be linked to three unrelated – and opposing – terrorist organisations. Some of the allegations against her refer to two Amnesty documents issued before she joined the organisation.
Meanwhile, Taner is accused of membership of the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation”. There’s not a shred of evidence to substantiate this. A principal prosecution claim is that he downloaded the messaging app ByLock, which the Turkish authorities say has been used by Gülenists to communicate. Two independent reports – one from Turkey, the other from the UK – confirm the app was never downloaded on Taner’s phone. Despite this, he’s spent the last eight months in jail.
Without doubt, then, it’s a put-up job. At Amnesty we’ve had enough experience down the years – Pinochet’s Chile, South Africa under apartheid – to know a politically motivated trial when we see one. The authorities are trying to make examples out of my colleagues to frighten, dishearten and disempower anyone else inclined to pursue human rights activism.
Hearteningly, none of this has gone unnoticed. More than a million people have signed a petition calling for this sham trial to be halted. Governments around the world, including the UK’s , have expressed their concern. Theresa May reportedly tackled the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, about the case in a telephone call last week. We’re still hopeful that sense will prevail, and the case be abandoned.
But barring good news in the coming days, I’ll be in court on Wednesday to observe the latest act in this judicial charade, showing my solidarity and support for embattled colleagues.
It’s usually Amnesty’s job to stand up for others whose human rights are under threat. It’s a measure of the country’s increasingly precipitous decline that we now find that it’s ourselves who are under threat in the repressive new Turkey.
• Kate Allen is the director of Amnesty International UK
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