Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a unicameral 600-seat parliament (the Grand National Assembly). In presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and the campaign environment, including the jailing of a presidential candidate, that restricted the ability of opposition candidates to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely.
The National Police and Jandarma, under the control of the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for security in urban areas and rural and border areas, respectively. The military has overall responsibility for border control. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over law enforcement officials, but mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption remained inadequate. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Under broad antiterror legislation passed in 2018, the government continued to restrict fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law. Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended tens of thousands of civil servants and government workers, including more than 60,000 police and military personnel and more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors, arrested or imprisoned more than 95,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accused of masterminding the coup attempt and designated as the leader of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization.”
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and continued detention of tens of thousands of persons, including opposition politicians and former members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and employees of the U.S. Mission, for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; political prisoners, including elected officials; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country, including kidnappings and transfers without due process of alleged members of the Gulen movement; significant problems with judicial independence; support for Syrian opposition groups that perpetrated serious abuses in conflict, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement, including overly restrictive laws regarding government oversight of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; some cases of refoulement of refugees; serious government harassment of domestic human rights organizations; gender-based violence; crimes involving violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons.
The government took limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish members of the security forces and other officials accused of human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem. The government took limited steps to investigate allegations of high-level corruption.
Clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party terrorist organization and its affiliates continued and resulted in the injury or death of security forces, terrorists, and civilians. The government did not release information on efforts to investigate or prosecute personnel for wrongful or inadvertent deaths of civilians linked to counterterrorism operations.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were credible allegations that the government contributed to civilian deaths in connection with its fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) organization in the southeast although civilian deaths continued to decline in recent years (see section 1.g.). The PKK continued to target civilians in its attacks; the government continued to work to block such attacks. The law authorizes the Ombudsman Institution, the National Human Rights and Equality Institution, prosecutors’ offices, criminal courts, and parliament’s Human Rights Commission to investigate reports of security force killings, torture, or mistreatment, excessive use of force, and other abuses. Civil courts, however, remained the main recourse to prevent impunity.
According to the International Crisis Group, from January 1 to November 15, a total of 25 civilians, 51 security force members, and 268 PKK militants were killed in the country and surrounding region in PKK-related clashes. Human rights groups stated the government took insufficient measures to protect civilian lives in its fight with the PKK.
The PKK continued its campaign of attacks on government security forces, resulting in civilian deaths. PKK attacks focused particularly on southeastern provinces. In October the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources reported that a PKK attack killed two electricity workers in Bingol Province after the group detonated a remote-controlled explosive while a vehicle carrying the workers passed.
There were credible reports that the country’s military operations outside its borders led to the deaths of civilians (see section 1.g.). In August press outlets reported that Turkish airstrikes on what may have been a makeshift medical facility in the Sinjar District of Iraq killed four medical staff in addition to members of a militia affiliated with both the PKK and elements of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.
According to the Baran Tursun Foundation, an organization that monitors police brutality, police killed 404 individuals for disobeying stop warnings between 2007 and 2020. According to the report, 92 were children. Police killed six individuals in 2020 according to the report. In June suspect Birol Yildirim died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody in the Esenyurt district in Istanbul. Authorities subsequently arrested 12 police officers on charges of beating Yildirim to death. The case against the officers continued at year’s end.
By law National Intelligence Organization (MIT) members are immune from prosecution as are security officials involved in fighting terror, making it harder for prosecutors to investigate extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses by requiring that they obtain permission from both military and civilian leadership prior to pursuing prosecution.
Domestic and international human rights groups reported instances of disappearances that they alleged were politically motivated.
In February human rights groups reported that Huseyin Galip Kucukozyigit, a former legal advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office who was dismissed after the 2016 coup attempt, may have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Kucukozyigit last contacted his family in December 2020; his relatives believed he was abducted. Authorities initially denied Kucukozyigit was in official custody. In September, Kucukozyigit’s daughter announced on social media that she received a telephone call from him and that he was in Sincan Prison in Ankara.
Human rights organizations appealed for authorities to investigate the disappearance of Yusuf Bilge Tunc, one of seven men reportedly “disappeared” by the government in 2019. Six of the seven surfaced in 2019 in police custody on terrorism charges, but Tunc’s whereabouts remained unknown.
The government declined to provide information on efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish such acts.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, but domestic and international rights groups reported that some police officers, prison authorities, and military and intelligence units employed these practices. Domestic human rights organizations, bar associations, political opposition figures, international human rights groups, and others reported that government agents engaged in threats, mistreatment, and possible torture of some persons while in custody. Human rights groups asserted that individuals with alleged affiliation with the PKK or the Gulen movement were more likely to be subjected to mistreatment, abuse, or possible torture.
Reports from human rights groups indicated that police abused detainees outside police station premises and that mistreatment and alleged torture was more prevalent in some police facilities in parts of the southeast. A consortium of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), told the press in July “police violence has become a part of daily life” and observed that authorities increasingly intervened in peaceful protests and demonstrations. In the first 11 months of the year, the HRFT reported receiving complaints from 531 individuals alleging they were subjected to torture and other forms of mistreatment while in custody or at extracustodial locations. In the same period, the Human Rights Association of Turkey (HRA) reported, at least 415 individuals applied to the NGO alleging torture or other forms of mistreatment. The HRA reported that intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common and that victims hesitated to report police abuse due to fear of reprisal.
In early January police violently dispersed protests over President Erdogan’s January 1 appointment of rector Melih Bulu at Bogazici University in Istanbul, using water cannons and tear gas. Police subsequently raided houses and detained 45 students in the protests. Amnesty International reported that the students alleged torture and mistreatment at the time of detention and while in custody. According to student reports, police pushed and hit them during detention. At least eight students reported forced strip searches, and two students from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community reported that police threatened them with rape with a truncheon and verbally abused them regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity. Amnesty stated that at least 15 students reported mistreatment during medical examinations at a hospital following detention.
Protests continued throughout the year, mainly in Istanbul. Human Rights Watch estimated that police detained more than 700 protesters since January in at least 38 cities. Human rights groups reported police frequently used excessive force during detentions, injuring protesters. For example, in February, Human Rights Watch reported police kicking protesters who were not resisting arrest. Videos showed protesters’ significant injuries, such as broken teeth and lacerations. In April human rights groups reported that police grabbed some students by the throat and threw them to the ground (see additional information in section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
The government asserted it followed a “zero tolerance” policy for torture and has abolished statute of limitations for cases of torture. In its World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch stated, “A rise in allegations of torture, mistreatment and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment in police custody and prison over the past four years has set back Turkey’s earlier progress in this area. Those targeted included persons accused of political and common crimes. Prosecutors did not conduct meaningful investigations into such allegations and there is a pervasive culture of impunity for members of the security forces and public officials implicated.” According to Ministry of Justice statistics from 2020, the government opened 2,199 investigations into allegations of torture and mistreatment. Of those, 917 resulted in no action being taken by prosecutors, 816 resulted in criminal cases, and 466 in other decisions. The government did not release data on its investigations into alleged torture.
NGOs and opposition politicians reported that prison administrators used strip searches punitively both against prisoners and visitors, particularly in cases where the prisoner was convicted on terrorism charges. The HRA documented 174 allegations of enforced strip searches in 2020. In a June report, the HRA’s Batman branch in the southeastern part of the country noted that prisoners reported strip searches during prison transfers, often executed with force that HRA alleged amounted to battery.
In February the family of the jailed former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) mayor of Hakkari, Dilek Hatipoglu, alleged that security guards beat her after she refused to undress for a strip search. Press outlets reported that Hatipoglu had a black eye at a court hearing that she attended that month. In 2016 a court sentenced Hatipoglu to 16 years and three months in prison on terrorism charges.
Some military conscripts reportedly endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in death or suicide. Human rights groups reported suspicious deaths in the military, particularly among conscripts of minority Alevi and Kurdish backgrounds. The government did not systematically investigate such incidents or release data on them. The HRA and HRFT reported at least 13 deaths of soldiers performing compulsory military service were the result of accidents or occurred under suspicious circumstances during the first 11 months of the year. In April an ethnically Romani soldier, Caner Sarmasik, committed suicide while on duty. A Romani NGO alleged Sarmasik’s commanders severely hazed him due to his Romani identity. Several opposition parliamentarians requested that the Ministry of Defense investigate the death. The government did not release information on its efforts to address abuse through disciplinary action and training.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prisons generally met standards for physical conditions (i.e., infrastructure and basic equipment), but significant problems with overcrowding resulted in conditions in many prisons that the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) found could be considered inhuman and degrading in its 2017 and 2019 visits. While detention facilities were generally in a good state of repair and well ventilated, many facilities had structural deficiencies that made them unsuitable for detention lasting more than a few days.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a significant problem. According to the Ministry of Justice, as of March the country had 374 prisons with a capacity for 250,756 inmates and an estimated total inmate population of 283,481.
If separate prison facilities for minors were not available, minors were held in separate sections within separate male and female adult prisons. Children younger than six were allowed to stay with their incarcerated mothers. The NGO Civil Society in the Penal System estimated that as of August, 345 children were being held with their mothers. Pretrial detainees were held in the same facilities as convicted prisoners.
The government did not regularly release data on inmate deaths due to physical conditions or actions of staff members. In February the Ministry of Justice announced 50 prisoners had died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The Ministry of Justice has not released updated figures on prisoner deaths due to COVID-19.
In December the HRA reported 28 deaths in prison related to illness, violence, or other causes.
Human rights organizations and CPT reports asserted that prisoners frequently lacked adequate access to potable water, proper heating, ventilation, lighting, food, and health services. Human rights organizations also noted that prison overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions exacerbated health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic. NGOs reported that prisoners feared reporting health problems or seeking medical care, since a positive COVID-19 result would lead to a two-week quarantine in solitary confinement. The NGO Civil Society in the Penal System reported prison facilities did not allow for sufficient social distancing due to overcrowding and that prison administrators did not provide regular cleaning and disinfection services. Prisons also did not provide disinfectant, gloves, or masks to prisoners, but instead sold them at commissaries. According to a March survey of prisoners by the NGO Media and Law Studies Association conducted in five facilities, 56 percent of respondents reported not having sufficient hygienic supplies during the pandemic.
According to Ministry of Justice prison and correctional facilities statistics, as of September there were seven medical doctors, 154 dentists, 81 nurses, 839 psychologists, and 444 other health workers serving the prison population. Human rights associations expressed serious concern regarding the inadequate provision of health care to prisoners, particularly the insufficient number of prison doctors. NGOs reported that prison wardens rather than health-care officials often decided whether to allow a prisoner’s transfer to a hospital.
Reports by human rights organizations suggested that some doctors refused to issue medical reports alleging torture due to fear of reprisal. As a result, victims were often unable to get medical documentation of their abuse.
Chief prosecutors have discretion, particularly under the wide-ranging counterterrorism law, to keep prisoners they deem dangerous to public security in pretrial detention, regardless of medical reports documenting serious illness.
Administration: Authorities at times investigated credible allegations of abuse and inhuman or degrading conditions but generally did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner or disclose publicly whether actions were taken to hold perpetrators accountable. Some human rights activists and lawyers reported that prisoners and detainees were sometimes arbitrarily denied access to family members and lawyers.
Independent Monitoring: The government allowed prison visits by some observers, including parliamentarians. The Ministry of Interior reported that under the law, prisons were to be monitored by domestic government entities including the Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey and the Parliamentary Commission for Investigating Human Rights. International monitors included the CPT, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
The government did not allow NGOs to monitor prisons. NGOs such as the HRA and Civil Society in the Penal System published periodic reports on prison conditions based on information provided by parliamentarians, correspondence with inmates, lawyers, inmates’ family members, and press reports.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of arrest or detention in court, but numerous credible reports indicated the government did not always observe these requirements.
Human rights groups noted that following the 2016 coup attempt, authorities continued to detain, arrest, and try hundreds of thousands of individuals with alleged ties to the Gulen movement or the PKK under terrorism-related charges, often with questionable evidentiary standards and without the full due process provided for under law (see sections 1.e. and 2.a.). Domestic and international legal and human rights groups criticized the judicial process in these cases, asserting that the judiciary lacked impartiality and that defendants were sometimes denied access to the evidence underlying the accusations against them.
On the fifth anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt in July, the Ministry of Interior announced that authorities had detained 312,121 and arrested 99,123 individuals since the coup attempt on grounds of alleged affiliation with the Gulen movement, which the government designated as a terrorist organization. Between July 2020 and July 2021, the government detained 29,331 and arrested 4,148 individuals for connections with the Gulen movement.
The courts in some cases applied the law unevenly, with legal critics and rights activists asserting court and prosecutor decisions were sometimes subject to executive interference.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires that prosecutors issue warrants for arrests unless the suspect is detained while committing a crime. The period for arraignment may be extended for up to four days. Formal arrest is a measure, separate from detention, which means a suspect is to be held in jail until and unless released by a subsequent court order. For crimes that carry potential prison sentences of fewer than three years’ imprisonment, a judge may release the accused after arraignment upon receipt of an appropriate assurance, such as bail. For more serious crimes, the judge may either release the defendant on his or her own recognizance or hold the defendant in custody (arrest) prior to trial if there are specific facts indicating the suspect may flee, attempt to destroy evidence, or attempt to pressure or tamper with witnesses or victims. Judges often kept suspects in pretrial detention without articulating a clear justification for doing so.
While the law generally provides detainees the right to immediate access to an attorney, it allows prosecutors to deny such access for up to 24 hours. In criminal cases the law also requires that the government provide indigent detainees with a public attorney if they request one. In cases where the potential prison sentence for conviction is more than five years’ imprisonment or where the defendant is a child or a person with disabilities, a defense attorney is appointed, even absent a request from the defendant. Human rights observers noted that in most cases authorities provided an attorney if a defendant could not afford one.
Under antiterror legislation adopted in 2018, the government may detain without charge (or appearance before a judge) a suspect for 48 hours for “individual” offenses and 96 hours for “collective” offenses. These periods may be extended twice with the approval of a judge, amounting to six days for “individual” and 12 days for “collective” offenses. Human rights organizations raised concerns that police authority to hold individuals for up to 12 days without charge increased the risk of mistreatment and torture.
The law gives prosecutors the right to suspend lawyer-client privilege and to observe and record conversations between accused persons and their legal counsel. Bar associations reported that detainees occasionally had difficulty gaining immediate access to lawyers, both because government decrees restricted lawyers’ access to detainees and prisons – especially for those attorneys not appointed by the state – and because many lawyers were reluctant to defend individuals the government accused of ties to the 2016 coup attempt. Human rights organizations reported the 24-hour attorney access restriction was arbitrarily applied and that in terrorism-related cases, authorities often did not inform defense attorneys of the details of detentions within the first 24 hours, as stipulated by law. In such cases rights organizations and lawyers’ groups reported attorneys’ access to the case files for their clients was limited for weeks or months pending preparations of indictments, hampering their ability to defend their clients.
Some lawyers stated they were hesitant to take cases, particularly those of suspects accused of PKK or Gulen movement ties, for fear of government reprisal, including prosecution. Many lawyers defending persons accused of terrorism have faced criminal charges themselves. This practice disproportionately affected access to legal representation in the southeast, where accusations of affiliation with the PKK were frequent and the ratio of lawyers to citizens was low. Government intimidation of defense lawyers also at times involved nonterror cases.
According to human rights organizations, as of January authorities had prosecuted more than 1,600 lawyers, arrested 615, and sentenced 450 to lengthy prison terms on terrorism-related charges since the 2016 coup attempt. Of the arrested lawyers, 15 were active or former presidents of provincial bar associations. In May prosecutors opened a terrorism investigation into lawyer and former president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, Cihan Aydin, based on a 2019 statement of the bar association’s Women’s Rights Center calling for an end to the country’s military action in Syria and for diplomatic resolution of the conflict. The International Committee of Jurists and other human rights groups called for authorities to stop prosecution of Aydin.
Arbitrary Arrest: Although the law prohibits holding a suspect arbitrarily or secretly, there were numerous reports that the government did not observe these prohibitions. Human rights groups alleged that in areas under curfew or in “special security zones,” security forces detained citizens without official record, leaving detainees at greater risk of arbitrary abuse.
The deputy chair of the Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights, Sezgin Tanrikulu, a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), reported that in February individuals identifying themselves as police detained one member of the Workers’ Party of Turkey and two members of a student organization, forced them into a car, and interrogated them for hours.
In April a doctor at a state hospital in Osmaniye Province reported that he was arrested after refusing to treat a public prosecutor who did not have an appointment. The public prosecutor threatened the doctor, who later received a summons to the courthouse where he was detained and released on the same day. The doctor filed a complaint against the prosecutor. The Adana Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for the district, decided not to pursue the complaint after reviewing the file.
Pretrial Detention: The maximum time an arrestee can be held pending trial with an indictment is seven years, including for crimes against the security of the state, national defense, constitutional order, state secrets and espionage, organized crime, and terrorism-related offenses. Pretrial detention during the investigation phase of a case (before an indictment) is limited to six months for cases that do not fall under the purview of the heavy criminal court, referred to by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) as the central criminal court, and one year for cases that fall under the heavy criminal court. The length of pretrial detention generally did not exceed the maximum sentence for the alleged crimes. For other major criminal offenses tried by high criminal courts, the maximum detention period remained two years with the possibility of three one-year extensions, for a total of five years. For terrorism-related cases, the maximum period of pretrial detention during the investigation phase is 18 months, with the possibility of a six-month extension.
Rule of law advocates noted that broad use of pretrial detention had become a form of summary punishment, particularly in cases that involved politically motivated terrorism charges.
The trial system does not provide for a speedy trial, and trial hearings were often months apart, despite provisions in the code of criminal procedure for continuous trial. Trials sometimes began years after indictment, and appeals could take years more to reach conclusion.
According to May statistics of the Ministry of Justice, 38,034 persons were held in pretrial detention, accounting for approximately 13 percent of the overall prison population.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees’ lawyers may appeal pretrial detention, although antiterror laws limited their ability to do so. The country’s judicial process allows a system of lateral appeals to criminal courts of peace for arrest, release, judicial control, and travel ban decisions that substitutes appeal to a higher court with appeal to a lateral court. Lawyers criticized the approach, which rendered ambiguous the authority of conflicting rulings by horizontally equal courts. In addition, since 2016 sentences of less than five years’ imprisonment issued by regional appellate courts were final and could not be appealed. Since 2019 the law provides for defendants in certain types of insult cases or speech-related cases to appeal to a higher court.
Detainees awaiting or undergoing trial have the right to a review in person with a lawyer before a judge every 90 days to determine if they should be released pending trial.
In cases of alleged human rights violations, detainees have the right to apply directly to the Constitutional Court for redress while their criminal cases are proceeding. Nevertheless, a backlog of cases at the Constitutional Court slowed proceedings, preventing expeditious redress.
Refugee-focused human rights groups alleged authorities prevented migrants placed in detention and return centers from communicating with the outside world, including their family members and lawyers, creating the potential for refoulement as migrants accept repatriation to avoid indefinite detention. COVID-19 preventative measures exacerbated these issues.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits. The government restricted freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict freedom of the press and other media and free speech through broad provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials.
The government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of expression. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment. The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state (see National Security, below).
In March prosecutors filed an opinion seeking an eight-year prison sentence for CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu in an appeals case related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court sentenced her to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018. In January prosecutors filed a separate indictment for “instigating the violation of privacy,” claiming that Kaftancioglu ordered photos of alleged illegal construction at the home of the Turkish Presidency’s communications director Fahrettin Altun. In October prosecutors also charged Kaftancioglu with “offending and insulting” Altun in relation to the same incident. In May, President Erdogan filed an insult lawsuit against Kaftancioglu, seeking 500,000 lira ($58,900) in damages for remarks she made in support of Bogazici University protesters. Kaftancioglu had pledged to “file a criminal complaint against the person who is occupying the presidential post,” referring to Erdogan.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups noted that the law was used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms on the floor of parliament, stating that parliamentarians could be reprimanded or temporarily expelled from the assembly; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law.
Former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from 2017 and 2018 bar association statements titled “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.” In April the Diyarbakir Bar Association reported that the Ministry of Interior launched an investigation after the bar association released a statement for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national daily newspapers through the companies’ affiliation with the government. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Government prosecution of journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In May the NGO Press in Arrest reported that prosecutors requested life sentences in 10 percent of cases filed against journalists since 2018. The NGO analyzed 240 press trials involving 356 journalists since 2018. In 60 percent (143) of the monitored cases, courts delivered prison sentences, ranging from 10 months’ to 19.5 years’ imprisonment. Prosecutors most frequently charged journalists with terrorism-related charges.
In January, Istanbul prosecutors filed terrorism propaganda charges against journalist Melis Alphan for sharing a picture on her social media account from the 2015 Newroz celebrations in majority-Kurdish Diyarbakir, which showed a PKK flag in the background. An Istanbul court acquitted Alphan in May, but prosecutors appealed. In July an appeals court ruled that Alphan should be retried. She faced up to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including using electronic monitoring.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that attacks on journalists were rarely prosecuted. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. In March a mob of 15 to 20 persons attacked Levent Gultekin, a columnist for online newspaper Diken and commentator for Halk TV, near the Halk TV studios. Both Diken and Halk TV are pro-opposition outlets. Following the attack, Gultekin shared that prior to the incident, he had received threats from supporters of a political party allied with the ruling party, referencing the Nationalist Movement Party. Police opened an investigation into the attack, and Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul promised to take steps to improve security for journalists but did not provide details.
On March 9, a man approached the home of radio presenter Hazim Ozsu in Bursa and shot him in the throat. Police arrested the presumed killer six days later. During interrogation, the suspect stated he shot Ozsu because he objected to some of Ozsu’s on-air remarks.
CHP parliamentarian Utku Cakirozer reported that in July alone at least 18 journalists were subjected to violence as a result of their professional activities. In August a group attacked Halk TV journalists and crew during a live broadcast from Marmaris, threatening the cameraman with a broken bottle. The journalists were reporting on wildfires in the region. Police detained the assailants after they fled the scene but later released them. News reports alleged that one of the assailants was an official at the local AKP office.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public for speech critical of the state.
In June police forcefully detained Agence France-Presse photographer Bulent Kilic while he was covering the pride march in Istanbul. According to an interview with Kilic and photos from the scene, officers threw Kilic to the ground and kneeled on his back and neck. Kilic reported struggling to breathe. He was briefly detained before being released with no charge.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Authorities also exercised censorship over online media (see Internet Freedom, below, for details).
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, court decisions resulted in bans for distribution or sale of certain books and periodicals. Bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
Publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The Turkish Publishers Association reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Authorities also subjected publishers to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization.
In 2020 a court ruled to ban the book The Political Branch of FETO in 21 Questions published by the CHP, which accused President Erdogan and other officials of cooperating with the Gulen movement. Prosecutors sought the ban based on insult charges and the charge of “provocation of the public to hatred and enmity.” The court decision barred future printing, distribution, and sale of the book and ordered confiscation of all copies already in print. In April the press reported that the now-banned book was cited as evidence in a prosecutorial request to the parliament to lift the parliamentary immunity of CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and seven other CHP members.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or jeopardized other business interests and fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. The president of the country’s broadcasting authority, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), told interviewers in April, “The political opposition wants to oppose [the government] in an uncontrolled manner. There are limits that cannot be surpassed.”
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. RTUK member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of July, RTUK had imposed 22 penalties on pro-opposition outlets only, mainly Halk TV, TELE1, and FOX TV. RTUK did not impose any fines on progovernment outlets.
In August, RTUK sent a letter to broadcasters regarding coverage of massive wildfires that broke out in July. The letter directed broadcasters to cover successful extinguishing efforts in addition to covering ongoing fires or face “heavy sanctions.” RTUK subsequently imposed fines on six opposition broadcasters for their coverage of the fires.
In March, RTUK fined pro-opposition broadcasters Halk TV and TELE1 for “mocking religious beliefs and social values.” Halk TV incurred the penalty after a news commentator noted that the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbas received medical care in more expensive private, rather than public hospitals. RTUK fined TELE1 because a newscaster used the term “Islamic terrorism.”
According to Committee to Protect Journalists reporting, during the state of emergency from 2016 to 2018, the government cancelled nearly 2,000 press cards and another 1,400 in 2020. In April the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, ruled against the 2018 press card regulation that expanded government authority to cancel press accreditation cards. The court ruled that the regulation specified grounds for press card cancellation, such as “conduct against the public order or national security” and “behaviors that damage the professional dignity of journalism,” that were arbitrary and ambiguous. The court mandated revision of the regulations. In May the Presidency Communications Directorate announced new regulations that reinforced the directorate’s authority to cancel press cards if journalists create content that “praises terror, endangers national security or provokes animosity and hatred” and enabled cancellation of permanent credentials granted to journalists after 20 years of service. The Journalist’s Union of Turkey assessed that the new regulations endangered journalistic freedom by allowing the government to arbitrarily suspend press credentials. In December the Council of State suspended the application of the revised regulations, ruling that the Presidency Communication Directorate is not authorized to decide who will be given a press card or under what circumstances a press card can be cancelled.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. In March authorities blocked French freelance journalist Sylvain Mercadier from entering the country and deported him after detaining him overnight. Mercadier reported that police questioned him regarding his work and whether he focused on Kurdish issues. Mercadier intended to cover Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir, among other topics. Immigration officials indicated public security as the reason for deportation in documentation provided to Mercadier.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 44,717 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2020; 10,629 stood trial and 3,655 were penalized. In July a court sentenced journalist Cem Simsek to 11 months and 20 days in prison for insulting the president in connection with a 2015 article analyzing cartoon drawings showing President Erdogan. Simsek was appealing the sentence at year’s end.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
In May, Istanbul prosecutors indicted journalist Deniz Yucel, formerly of the German newspaper Die Welt, on charges of “publicly degrading the Turkish nation and the state” in connection with two articles from 2016. In 2020 an Istanbul court convicted Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. An appeal was ongoing at year’s end.
In February a court sentenced CHP Aydin Province women’s branch president Ayse Ozdemir to 11 months’ imprisonment for “insulting the president” in connection with her participation in a 2020 performance to protest violence against women. Participants sang a viral Chilean feminist anthem during the performance. The court ordered a suspended sentence.
In April, President Erdogan signed a presidential order banning students convicted of insulting the president from staying in public university dormitories.
The government pursued an insult case against the Ankara Bar Association chair and executive board members for criticizing an anti-LGBTQI+ statement made by the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbas in 2020. The Ankara Bar Association leaders faced a potential sentence of up to two years in prison for “insulting a public official due to his or her duty for expressing beliefs, thoughts and opinions.” Police separately launched investigations into the Izmir and Diyarbakir bar associations in relation to the same incident.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization – generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 18 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 37 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons to whom it has issued a press accreditation card (typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors working for print or broadcast outlets), media watchdog groups also included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and other staff of media outlets, including digital outlets, in their definition. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported allegations from journalists that the process for receiving credentials was discriminatory and partisan, and NGOs estimated that only roughly one-quarter of the press corps were credentialed.
A study by the NGO Media and Law Studies Organization of 372 freedom of expression cases conducted from January to July found that in 58 percent of cases defendants faced charges related to terrorism. Prosecutors cited journalistic activities as evidence in 64 percent of cases where a press worker was a defendant.
In February an Istanbul court convicted the former HRA cochair Eren Keskin, two other former editors, and the former publisher of pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem on terrorism charges and sentenced them to jail terms ranging from 25 months to more than six years. In the same month hearings resumed in cases against four other journalists, including Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders, for “promoting terrorist propaganda” in a separate case related to Ozgur Gundem. In 2016 the defendants participated in a solidarity campaign with Ozgur Gundem, serving as the newspaper’s editors for one day each. Prosecutors subsequently filed charges against Onderoglu and other participants. Although an Istanbul court acquitted the four defendants in 2019, prosecutors subsequently appealed. Prosecutors sought up to 14 years in prison for the defendants in the resumed cases.
In March a court convicted an OdaTV news editor, Muyesser Yildiz, and TELE1 journalist, Ismail Dukel, for obtaining and disclosing confidential information. Yildiz was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment and Dukel to one year and 15 days. The journalists were tried in connection with telephone conversations they held with the third defendant in the case, a military officer, who allegedly provided them with information about Turkey’s intervention in Libya. The military officer received a sentence of seven-and-a-half years’ imprisonment.
In April the country’s highest appeals court ordered the release of prominent novelist and former editor of shuttered Taraf daily, Ahmet Altan. Police first detained Altan in 2016. Shortly before the appeals court’s decision, the ECHR ruled that the government violated Altan’s rights to liberty and security, right to fair and speedy proceedings, and freedom of expression. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” for alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt; he received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. Altan’s lawyers reported that the case against him was ongoing.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest in connection with the 2016 coup attempt or other charges. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face while protesting. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives provincial governors enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governors enacted broadly during the year.
In April the Ministry of Interior issued a circular banning all audio and visual recordings of citizens and police at protests. The Ankara Bar Association and human rights groups criticized the regulation and noted that it will hinder documentation of police violence at protests. Despite the ban journalists and protest participants continued to film protests, risking arrest. The country’s top administrative court stayed the execution of the circular in November and annulled it in December, finding that it violated freedom of the press.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force, resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise that they might cause civil disruption. The government generally did not investigate security forces’ actions. The HRFT reported that in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in at least 291 peaceful demonstrations and prohibited at least 88. As many as 3,540 persons claimed they were beaten and received other inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests.
In March hundreds of police officers restricted access to the annual International Women’s Day (March 8) demonstration in Istanbul. Police detained 13 women, including a 17-year-old minor, following the march. Prosecutors ordered the detention on charges of insulting the president after reviewing videos of the demonstration. Human Rights Watch reported that during interrogations police identified the phrase “Tayyip [President Erdogan’s first name], run, run, run, women are coming,” a slogan used during the demonstrations, as criminally offensive.
Also in March, President Erdogan announced his decision to withdraw the country from the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention (see section 6, Women), precipitating mass protests. On July 1, thousands of demonstrators took part in a protest in Istanbul. The Istanbul governor’s office had issued a permit for the demonstration, but police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who attempted to breach a second row of police barricades. No detentions or serious injuries were reported, but many women posted photographs of minor injuries on social media.
Authorities continued to press charges against 33 members of the organization Ankara Women’s Platform who joined protests against the country’s possible withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in 2020. The defendants faced charges for violating the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations. In June police dispersed a protest that the Ankara Women’s Platform staged in front of the courthouse where a hearing in the case was being held. Police prevented platform members from making a statement in support of defendants and used pepper spray against them. Police detained 20 demonstrators. Several demonstrators reported being battered during their detention.
The government continued selectively to ban demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government and selectively applied COVID-19 restrictive measures to demonstrations. In May the governor of Rize Province implemented a month-long ban on protests, marches, and public statements in Rize’s Ikizdere District after protests broke out in April against the opening of a stone quarry. Prior to the ban, law enforcement officers fined protesters for not complying with the COVID-19 curfew. In April, Jandarma officers used tear gas to disperse protesting residents of Ikizdere, detaining and releasing several the same day. Some of protesters reported injuries due to police intervention.
In January the Istanbul governor used the COVID-19 pandemic as grounds to announce a ban on all protests and public gatherings in the two Istanbul districts where Bogazici University campuses are located. The governor of Adana similarly banned protests in Adana from January to February after protests over the Bogazici University rector appointment broke out in the city. Ankara authorities selectively applied blanket COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings to detain Bogazici protesters. Police detained hundreds of protesters across the country and used undue force that some protesters alleged amounted to torture (see section 1.c.).
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the “Saturday Mothers” from taking place on Istiklal Street in Istanbul, detaining three group members during the commemoration of the vigil’s 800th week in July. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability. Of the group, 46 members continued to face criminal charges for violating the law by holding their 700th weekly vigil in 2018.
As in previous years, police intervened in demonstrations to honor International Workers’ Day on May 1. The press reported that police detained more than 200 demonstrators violating COVID-19 curfews, mainly in Istanbul. Videos showed police jostling with unions leaders and other demonstrators and throwing them on the ground in Istanbul. Authorities allowed some commemorations that received prior government approval to proceed, with the Istanbul governor’s office reporting that police only intervened in “illegal” gatherings. The Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey reported that police barred journalists from documenting police violence, per the April circular (see above).
Throughout the year the governors of Van, Tunceli, Mus, Hakkari, and several other provinces banned public protests, demonstrations, gatherings of any kind, and the distribution of brochures.
Authorities restricted the rights of assembly of LGBTQI+ individuals and allies throughout the year (see section 6).
Freedom of Association
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security from reopening. In its 2020 end-of-year report, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures reported that 208 of the 1,727 associations and foundations closed following the 2016 coup attempt have been allowed to reopen. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress through the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e., Denial of Fair Public Trial).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting LGBTQI+ rights, and women’s groups in particular, stated that the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them by threatening large fines.
Human rights groups reported that since the passage of the counterterrorism financing legislation, Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in late December 2020, government audits had become more frequent and onerous. The law expanded the Ministry of Interior’s powers to audit, suspend staff and governing board members, and temporarily shut down operations of NGOs without judicial review. Although authorities did not close any civil society organization using this law during the year, NGOs reported that the law had already had a substantial chilling effect. Civil society organization warned that the law provided authorities with expanded powers to punitively target civil society organizations engaged in politically sensitive work, and some organizations reported restricting their normal activities to reduce the likelihood of attracting adverse government attention.
In July the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission adopted an expert opinion criticizing the law, noting its stipulations regarding aid collection and mandatory yearly audits could be applied punitively and arbitrarily to restrict NGO activity in violation of freedom of association. The opinion also noted that the law’s provisions potentially enabling the government to appoint trustees to NGOs without approval from the associations’ members “constitutes a serious infringement of the right of associations to conduct their own affairs.” The opinion also expressed concern that the provisions of the law apply indiscriminately to the entire civil society sector rather than to specific NGOs identified as being vulnerable to financing by terrorist entities.
In April the Ministry of Interior suspended the board of the Turkey Retired Officers Association after it pledged support for a controversial public statement on the Montreux Convention issued by 103 retired admirals. The government alleged the statement included an implicit coup threat and detained at least 14 of the signatories, later releasing them under travel bans. The ministry cited the Law on Associations in suspending the association’s board. In December prosecutors filed an indictment seeking up to 12 years in prison for the signatories of the statement.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and three other human rights defenders continued in appeals court. Authorities charged the defendants with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop, Protecting Human Rights Advocates – Digital Security, held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. In 2020 an Istanbul court convicted Kilic and three others on terrorism-related charges. The activists remained free pending appeal; the 2018 ban on Kilic’s foreign travel, however, remained in place.
Following the July 2020 passage of a law allowing multiple bar associations in populous provinces and the subsequent founding of second bar associations in Istanbul and Ankara, some lawyers reported government pressure to join the new associations. All 80 domestic bar associations, as well as human rights groups, criticized the 2020 law, alleging it would divide bar associations along political lines and diminish the voices of bar associations critical of the government’s actions. Bar associations in major metropolitan areas have wielded significant political power and influence, particularly in matters of human rights and rule of law. In February the original Istanbul bar association issued a statement noting it had received complaints that public officials were pressuring lawyers to switch membership to the newly established bar association. By year’s end, however, the second bar association of Istanbul had approximately 2,300 members, only a slight increase above the minimum legal requirement of 2,000 members. The second bar association in Ankara was established in October.
Bar association and other civil society organization representatives reported that police sometimes attended organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as an effort to intimidate them.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the constitution and law provide citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections based on universal and equal suffrage conducted by secret ballot, the government restricted equal competition and placed restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly). The government restricted the activities of opposition political parties, leaders, and officials, including through police detention. Several parliamentarians remained at risk of possible prosecution after parliament lifted their immunity in 2016.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In 2018 the country held early parliamentary and presidential elections that originally had been scheduled for late 2019. The elections completed a constitutional amendment process that began with the 2017 national referendum, the passing of which initiated the country’s official transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. The campaign and election both occurred under a state of emergency that had been in place since 2016 and that granted the government expanded powers to restrict basic rights and freedoms, including those of assembly and speech. While most candidates generally were able to campaign ahead of the elections, the HDP’s presidential candidate remained in prison during the campaign and the candidate for the IYI (Good) Party faced a de facto media embargo. Despite the ability to campaign, the observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted the elections were held in an environment heavily tilted in favor of the president and the ruling party, stating, “The incumbent president and his party enjoyed a notable advantage in the campaign, which was also reflected in excessive coverage by public and government-affiliated private media.”
Media coverage of the 2018 parliamentary and presidential candidates similarly overwhelmingly favored the president and ruling party. For example, according to a member of the Radio and Television Supreme Council, between May 14 and May 30 of 2018, Turkish Radio and Television broadcast 67 hours of coverage on President Erdogan, seven hours on CHP candidate Muharrem Ince, 12 minutes on IYI candidate Meral Aksener, eight minutes on Felicity Party candidate Temel Karamollaoglu, and no coverage of HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas. Many opposition parties relied instead on social media to connect with supporters.
The period between the April 2018 announcement of early elections and the vote saw several attacks on political party offices, rallies, and members, including some incidents that led to death and serious injury. Violence most targeted the HDP and its campaigners. Opposition party members faced frequent accusations from the highest levels of government of alleged terrorism-related crimes. Several opposition candidates for parliament continued to face legal charges in connection with such claims, and HDP presidential candidate Demirtas was in prison during the campaign. The OSCE noted that key amendments were adopted within months of the early elections without consultation and were perceived as favoring the ruling party.
There were allegations of electoral irregularities primarily in the east, which some tied to unanticipated levels of success for the AKP and associated parties.
In March 2019 the country held municipal elections for thousands of seats, ranging from local neighborhood council seats to metropolitan mayors. The campaign occurred in a media environment that was heavily biased in favor of the government. Progovernment outlets and ruling party incumbents criticized opposition leaders and candidates by alleging they had links to terrorism.
Council of Europe observers stated the elections were conducted in a technically sound and orderly manner but noted that a genuinely democratic election also needed a political environment with genuine freedom of expression, media freedom and equal access to all parties, and a fair and reasonable legal framework overseen by a robust judiciary.
After the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) initially declared opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu the winner of the March 2019 mayoral race in Istanbul, the YSK ordered a rerun of the race in response to ruling party claims of election irregularities. The rerun decision attracted criticism from the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and many others, who asserted the YSK made the decision in a highly politicized context and under pressure from the presidency. In June 2019 Imamoglu won the election re-run and assumed office. The municipal campaigns and elections occurred in an environment of restricted basic rights and freedoms, including those of assembly and speech. While most candidates were generally able to campaign ahead of the elections, government officials threatened multiple candidates and party leaders with criminal charges. For example, a prosecutor revived a resolved legal case against the opposition candidate for Ankara mayor, Mansur Yavas; and President Erdogan publicly raised doubts regarding Yavas’s ability to fulfill his term should he be elected mayor because of the pending case. In September 2019 the court acquitted Yavas. The YSK unseated some winners of the 2019 municipal elections, including six winning HDP mayors, by finding them ineligible to serve after it had initially cleared their eligibility for candidacy.
All parties alleged irregularities in the voter lists, which they complained included “ghost voters” (one “ghost” registrant was older than 130) or legally deceased individuals, and suspicious residency claims.
Media coverage overwhelmingly favored the candidates of the ruling party and its coalition and election ally, the Nationalist Movement Party. For example, according to a member of the national broadcasting regulator during the 57-day period prior to the elections, state-run Turkish Radio and Television devoted 150 hours of coverage to the AKP, 50 hours to the CHP, and three hours to the HDP. Many opposition parties relied instead on social media to connect with supporters.
The pre-election period saw several attacks on political party offices, rallies, and members, including some incidents that led to death and serious injury. Opposition party members faced frequent accusations from the highest levels of government of alleged terrorism-related crimes. In April 2019 a crowd assaulted CHP chair Kemal Kilicdaroglu during the funeral ceremony for a soldier killed by the PKK. The attack followed statements by President Erdogan and the chair of AKP’s parliamentary alliance partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, accusing the CHP of sympathizing and collaborating with “PKK terrorists” during the municipal election campaigns due to its affiliation with the HDP. In February prosecutors filed an indictment against 21 individuals involved in the attack.
Political Parties and Political Participation: In parliament 14 political parties held seats, and others were able to participate in elections. Some parties enjoyed greater advantages than others. Media influence favored the ruling party and its alliance partner, the Nationalist Movement Party. Representatives expressing views critical of the government or President Erdogan have faced criminal or civil charges. HDP representatives faced significant legal challenges to their ability to campaign, express opinions, and retain their mandate. The party faced a closure suit brought by the government. The government used opposition leaders’ social media postings to file criminal and civil complaints against them, alleging the defendants insulted the president and spread terrorist propaganda.
In March prosecutors filed a lawsuit to close the HDP, the third-largest party in parliament, and ban 687 HDP members from politics for five years. The Constitutional Court returned the indictment due to procedural deficiencies. In June the Constitutional Court accepted an amended indictment. The updated indictment sought political bans for 451 HDP members, including the party’s top leaders. The indictment alleged the HDP provided support to the PKK. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
During the year restrictive government regulations constrained the ability of many among the opposition to conduct political activities such as organizing protests or political campaign events and sharing critical messages on social media. In February police blocked HDP cochair Pervin Buldan from holding a press conference at a border gate in Van Province, citing COVID-19 measures. Police stopped Buldan and her delegation from proceeding to the gate and blocked journalists from recording the incident.
The government also suspended democratically elected mayors in multiple cities and municipalities in the southeast and in their place assigned state “trustees” when the former were accused of (but not necessarily convicted of) affiliation with terrorist groups. The government most commonly directed these tactics against politicians affiliated with the leftist pro-Kurdish HDP and its partner, the Democratic Regions Party. The government suspended 81 percent of HDP mayors elected in the March 2019 municipal elections. Since 2016 the government has removed 88 percent of elected HDP officials. Former HDP cochairs Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag remained in prison (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
The HDP blamed intensified government rhetoric linking the HDP with PKK terrorism for provoking armed attacks on HDP offices. In June an assailant shot and killed Deniz Poyraz, the daughter of an HDP volunteer at a party office in Izmir. The assailant claimed he would have harmed more individuals had they been present and stated he was motivated by hatred for the PKK. The family of Deniz Poyraz filed a criminal complaint against police officers, alleging that they received security intelligence regarding the attack but failed to prevent it.
In July an assailant entered the HDP office in Marmaris early in the morning and fired more than 100 shots. In December an assailant attacked an HDP office in Istanbul, wounding two employees with a knife. Police arrested suspects in all three cases. Four others allegedly involved in the Marmaris attack were detained and released shortly thereafter under judicial control.
Shortly following the attack on HDP offices in Izmir, police detained two persons for throwing Molotov cocktails at an AKP office in Diyarbakir and four for a similar attempted attack in Agri. Some AKP officials attributed the attacks to retaliation for preceding attacks on HDP offices.
Opposition party officials reported difficulty raising campaign donations from individuals and businesses, which reported they feared reprisals from the government. Some company employees seen by their management as supporting opposition parties, especially the HDP, claimed they faced adverse treatment, including termination of employment.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. Some individuals advocating for political rights or associated with the HDP, however, experienced increased government pressure or were accused of ties to the PKK. According to the Association to Support Women Candidates, the number of women participating in the 2019 municipal elections as candidates at the mayoral, district mayoral, and metropolitan city levels was between 7.5 percent and 8.5 percent. For example, 652 of 8,257 (7.9 percent) mayoral candidates in the 2019 elections were women. Of the 1,389 newly elected mayors at the district level or higher, 37 were women. The number of women in the judiciary also remained disproportionately low. As of January, 36 percent of judges and prosecutors were women. As of year’s end, there were 101 women in the 600-member parliament. The greatest number of elected female mayors were in the southeast and ran on leftist and pro-Kurdish party tickets.