Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On April 29, a zone commander for the Liberia National Police (LNP), Roosevelt Demann, shot and killed an unarmed civilian, Beyan Lamie, when Lamie attempted to flee after a confrontation. An LNP investigation determined that Lamie posed no danger to Demann at the time. In September, Demann was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Demann’s legal counsel filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. The case is reportedly on the docket for March 2019.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution prohibits practices such as torture and inhuman treatment. Sections 5.1 and 5.6 of the penal code provide criminal penalties for excessive use of force by law enforcement officers and address permissible uses of force during arrest or while preventing the escape of a prisoner from custody. Nonetheless, police and other security officers allegedly abused, harassed, and intimidated persons in police custody, as well as those seeking police protection. Unlike previous years, the LNP did not report any cases of rape or sexual assault by police officers.
In a report released in August, the Liberian Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) reported that in August 2017, a corrections officer at Harper Central Prison severely beat a pretrial detainee for refusing to get the officer water from a nearby creek. After an internal investigation, the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) suspended the officer for one month.
The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which closed its mission in March, had received four reports of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse for the year. All incidents reported during the year occurred in 2016 or earlier, and all investigations were pending. Three reports of sexual exploitation were filed against a military contingent member from Namibia, a member of the UN police from Gambia, and a military observer from Ethiopia. The fourth report implicated four individuals from Nigeria; three military contingent members for alleged sexual exploitation and one military contingent member for rape. The United Nations substantiated three of the six cases from the previous year and repatriated the accused individuals, including one report against a military contingent member from Nepal accused of sexual assault, one report against a military contingent member from Nigeria accused of a sexually exploitative relationship, and one report against a military contingent member from Ghana accused of sexual exploitation. The remaining reports were still under investigation as of November.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to overcrowding, failing infrastructure, and inadequate medical care. Prisoners and independent prison monitors often noted that prisons had inadequate food.
Physical Conditions: Inadequate space, bedding and mosquito netting, food, sanitation, ventilation, cooling, lighting, basic and emergency medical care, and potable water contributed to harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions in the 15 prisons and one detention center. Many prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors in accordance with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The BCR sometimes used farming to supplement food rations. According to the BCR, the government’s food allocation is sufficient to meet daily calorie requirements, and both the allocation to prisons and distribution to prisoners were tracked by the BCR and were available upon request. The BCR reported that poor road conditions during the rainy season frequently delayed food delivery in the southeast, during which time prison superintendents supplemented normal rations with locally grown food and donations from family and friends of inmates.
The BCR reported six prisoner deaths through August 29. According to the BCR, the deaths were due to medical reasons, like tuberculosis or malaria, and none resulted from prison violence or mistreatment of prisoners.
Gross overcrowding continued to be a problem. The BCR reported the prison population in the country was almost twice the planned capacity. In seven of the 16 BCR facilities, detention figures were 100 to 450 percent more than planned capacity. According to the BCR, approximately one-half of the country’s 2,426 prisoners were at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP). MCP’s official capacity is 374 detainees, but the prison held 1,180 in December, of whom 76 percent (901) were pretrial detainees. As of August 29, the prison population countrywide included 60 women, of whom 21 were assigned to the MCP, which also held 10 male juveniles, all of whom were in pretrial detention. The BCR administration complained of understaffing. No comprehensive staffing document existed to verify BCR staffing claims.
In some locations, the BCR relied on the LNP to provide court and medical escorts; other locations relied on court officers to transport prisoners to court; still other locations reportedly called the county ambulance to transport prisoners and escorts to the hospital or placed prisoners on the back of motorcycles. There were reports that the BCR also used the superintendent or the county attorney’s vehicle to transport prisoners. The MCP lacked adequate vehicles and fuel for its needs; some staff reportedly paid for fuel themselves.
The Ministry of Justice funded the BCR, which did not have a specific funding allocation beyond those funds under the national budget. The BCR lacked funds for the maintenance of prison facilities, fuel, vehicle maintenance, cellular or internet communications, and regular and timely payment of employees, which remained a government-wide problem. According to the INCHR, prison conditions were not in compliance with the country’s own legal standards for prisons. According to Prison Fellowship Liberia (PFL), most prisons and detention facilities were in unacceptable condition and often had leaking roofs, cracks in the walls, limited or no lighting, and in some cases lacked septic tanks or electricity.
Medical services were available at most of the prisons but not on a daily or 24-hour basis. The only location where medical staff was available Monday through Friday was at the MCP. Medical staff at the MCP only worked during the day. Health-care workers visited most other prisons and detention centers one to two times per week; they were not always timely, and facilities could go weeks without medical staff.
The Ministry of Health and county health teams had primary responsibility for the provision of medicines. The budget of the Ministry of Justice included a small line item to supplement medicines to cover those that the Ministry of Health could not provide. The Carter Center and Don Bosco Catholic Services provided some medical services, medicines, nutritional supplements, food, and related training to improve basic conditions at the MCP. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Partners in Health and the Ministry of Health generally provided health services to facilities. The supply chain for medicines was weak throughout the country; prison medical staff often did not have access to necessary medicines. NGOs and community groups also provided medicines to treat seizures, skin infections, and mental health conditions. The ministry and county health teams replenished medications to treat malaria and tuberculosis only when stocks were exhausted. Since replenishment sometimes took weeks or months, inmates often went without medication for lengthy periods.
There were reports of inadequate treatment for ailing inmates and inmates with disabilities. At the MCP the BCR worked to identify individuals with special needs, including those with tuberculosis, through screening provided by the Ministry of Health and Partners in Health. Although the law provides for compassionate release of prisoners who are ill, such release was uncommon. By law prisoners must be extremely ill for authorities to take up the request for release on compassionate grounds; prisoners sometimes died waiting for authorities to review their cases. Authorities determined whether to release an ill prisoner on an ad hoc basis, and most were quarantined after presenting symptoms rather than being released. As a result inmate health in prisons and the BCR’s ability to respond and contain diseases among the prison population was poor.
Authorities held men and women in separate cellblocks at the MCP, but in counties with smaller detention facilities, authorities designated a single cell for female prisoners and held juveniles in the same cellblock with adults. In Barclayville police manage one cell and the BCR manage another, as there are only two cells in the station; there is no designated cell for females or juveniles. Except at the MCP, which had a juvenile cellblock, children were mostly held in separate cells within adult cellblocks. Because many minors did not have identity documents at the time the court issued commitment orders, they were sometimes misidentified as adults by the courts, issued confinement orders as adults, and therefore held in adult cellblocks. There were also reports by NGOs and observers of inmates in the juvenile facility reaching age 18 who were not transferred to the adult population. According to the PFL, prison staff sometimes held adults with juveniles in the juveniles’ smaller cells. Pretrial detainees were generally held with convicted prisoners.
Conditions for women prisoners were somewhat better than for men; women inmates were less likely to suffer from overcrowding and had more freedom to move within the women’s section of facilities. According to the INCHR female inmates’ personal hygiene needs were often not addressed. Many female detainees lacked sanitary items unless provided by family; occasionally NGOs donated these items, but stocks ran out quickly.
Administration: The BCR has its own training staff, which as of September conducted one in-service training and five specialized training sessions for a small number of officers. The BCR increased use of its own data collections and systems. Intake reporting expanded to capture data regarding prisoners with mental and physical disabilities. National records officers communicated (via telephone) weekly with facility records officers to collect updated information, and share a monthly roll with county attorneys; however, the transfer of records to Monrovia remained inadequate.
The PFL stated that prison staff sometimes misappropriated food intended for prisoners. Unlike in 2017 the BCR did not report investigations of staff for corruption in the distribution of food.
Independent prison monitors sent complaints of prison conditions and allegations of staff misconduct to the BCR. The BCR stated it would conduct internal investigations into each complaint, but it was unclear if the BCR actually did so.
Authorities sometimes used alternatives to prison sentencing for nonviolent offenders, but courts failed to make adequate efforts to employ alternatives to incarceration at the pretrial stages of criminal proceedings. Courts issued probationary sentences in some cases for nonviolent offenders. Magistrates, however, continued to sentence prisoners convicted of minor offenses to long terms, for cases in which probation prisoner rights advocates believed might have been more appropriate. Public defenders continued to use a plea-bargaining system in some courts. The law provides for bail, including release on the detainee’s own recognizance. The bail system, however, was inefficient and susceptible to corruption. No ombudsman system operated on behalf of prisoners and detainees.
The government did not make public internal reports and investigations into allegations of inhuman conditions in prisons. The BCR sometimes made prison statistics publicly available. Although not systematically implemented, BCR media policy dictated release of information, including in response to requests from the public.
The BCR removed a corrections officer and a nurse from their positions after they were caught stealing from a prison pharmacy in July; as of September the BCR turned over the nurse’s case to the Ministry of Health and the officer was suspended pending termination.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local human rights groups, international NGOs, the United Nations, diplomatic personnel, and media. Some human rights groups, including domestic and international organizations, visited detainees at police headquarters and prisoners in the MCP. The INCHR had unfettered access to and visited all facilities. The PFL also had unfettered access to facilities.
Improvements: During the year the BCR reorganized its gender unit so that it was directly involved in the recruitment and training of corrections officers. The BCR reorganized the centralized investigation unit, an independent unit that investigates allegations against corrections staff and recommends disciplinary action, so that investigative officers no longer perform corrections duties. It also expanded the probation department by adding 25 probation officers. The Robertsport Central Prison facility opened in May, with a cellblock for female inmates and a greater number of cells.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but criminal libel and slander laws and national security laws placed limits on freedom of speech.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, but due to a lack of funding, they were often overshadowed by privately owned media outlets with partisan leanings. Some media outlets and journalists allegedly charged fees to publish some articles. According to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), laws prohibiting criminal libel against the president, sedition, and criminal malevolence as well as high fines associated with civil suits were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. Self-censorship was widespread, and some media outlets avoided addressing subjects like government corruption both due to fear of legal sanction and in order to retain government advertising revenue. Court decisions against journalists often involved exorbitant fines, and authorities jailed journalists who did not pay the fines.
Violence and Harassment: Law enforcement officers occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners because of their political opinions and reporting, especially those that criticized government officials. Government officials also harassed and sometimes threatened media members for political or personal reasons. In February the legislative press pool stated that Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate Toe C. Toe bit Austin Kawah of Prime FM during a disagreement regarding entering Senate chambers, and that Representative Munah Pelham-Youngblood assaulted FrontPage Africa journalist Henry Karmo during an open session at the Capitol. According to the press pool, Youngblood attacked Karmo for reporting a story that was critical of the lawmaker. On November 21, the Daily Observer reported that Representative Solomon George allegedly threatened to order the beating of two journalists from the legislative press pool for “insulting” the legislature.
During a joint press conference marking the conclusion of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed on March 22, President Weah rebuked BBC and Associated Press journalist Jonathan Paye-Layleh for being “against him.” President Weah’s response followed a question from Paye-Layleh regarding whether he would support establishing a war crimes court. Days later the president’s press secretary released a statement to clarify that Weah’s remarks were a reminder that while Weah was advocating for human rights, Paye-Layleh and other journalists “were bent on undermining his [Weah’s] efforts by depicting a positive image of the carnage” during the country’s civil wars. PUL suggested that the president’s comments directed at Paye-Layleh could endanger journalists and promote self-censorship.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally able to express a wide variety of views, some journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid possible criminal charges. Journalists and media directors also practiced self-censorship to maintain advertising revenue from the government, the largest advertiser in the country. There were several reports that politicians and government agencies offered “transportation fees” to journalists to secure coverage of events.
In June the government announced the suspension and review of all media licenses issued between January 1 and June 18. According to a press release from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism, the reason for the suspension was to investigate irregularities such as the duplication of transmission frequencies to radio and television broadcasters. PUL stated that the move was meant to intimidate media and halt the opening of a radio station by a critic of the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were several reports that libel, slander, and defamation laws constrained the work of journalists and media outlets reporting on high-profile government or other public figures. On April 9, the Civil Law Court ordered staff from FrontPage Africato appear in court. The government then briefly detained at least seven journalists and forced the newspaper’s office to close temporarily. The court’s decision resulted from a $1.8 million civil defamation lawsuit filed against the newspaper for publishing a paid advertisement concerning the administrators of a deceased politician’s estate that it retracted before the suit.
PUL advocated for decriminalizing libel and slander and eliminating prison terms for persons unable to pay large fines. PUL also continued efforts to self-regulate the media and ensure adherence to standards including investigation and settlement of complaints against or by the press. PUL’s National Media Council, launched in 2017 to address court cases against the media, mediated six cases during the year.
On May 31, President Weah submitted a bill repealing sections of the penal law on criminal libel against the president and other government officials, sedition, and criminal malevolence. In July the House of Representatives unanimously approved the bill. As of November the bill was awaiting Senate review. This bill, if passed, would help bring the country into compliance with the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and “insult” laws across the African continent.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content and there were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 8 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
There were reports of government officials threatening legal action and filing civil lawsuits to censor protected internet-based speech and intimidate senders.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The Ministry of Justice required permits for public gatherings and obtaining a permit was relatively easy.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating, and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to the views of these groups.
The government has not implemented the majority of the recommendations contained in the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report. The law creating the commission requires that the president submit quarterly progress reports to the legislature on the implementation of TRC recommendations; however, since taking office in January, President Weah has failed to submit quarterly reports.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ministry of Justice, Human Rights Protection Unit convened coordination meetings that provided a forum for domestic and international human rights NGOs to present matters to the government, including proposed legislation. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights acted as an independent check on the actions of the government in line with its mission to monitor human rights violations in the country.
The INCHR has the mandate to promote and protect human rights, investigate and conduct hearings on human rights violations, propose changes to laws, policies, and administrative practices and regulations, and counsel the government on the implementation of national and international human rights standards.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, but the government did not enforce the law effectively, and rape remained a serious and pervasive problem. The law’s definition of rape does not specifically criminalize spousal rape. Conviction of first-degree rape–defined as rape involving a minor, rape that results in serious injury or disability, or rape committed with the use of a deadly weapon–is punishable by up to life imprisonment. Conviction of second-degree rape, defined as rape committed without the aggravating circumstances enumerated above, is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
A specialized sexual violence court (Court E) has exclusive original jurisdiction over cases of sexual assault, including abuse of minors, but it was limited in effectiveness by having only one of two authorized judges presiding. According to the MGCSP, rape accounted for more than 60 percent of total SGBV cases reported. SGBV against persons younger than the age of 18 accounted for 77 percent of cases referred to the MGCSP. Observers believed the true incidence of statutory rape was even higher than the number of rape cases reported.
On August 5, a 13-year-old girl died after three of her male neighbors allegedly gang-raped her. The girl, who lived in a rural area, suffered from severe bleeding during a two-week period and died before her family could arrange transportation to the nearest health-care facility. The girl’s father told the press that his daughter was initially afraid to report the crime because the men threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Police arrested one of the alleged rapists, but as of September the remaining two suspects remained at large.
The government operated two shelters for SGBV victims, victims of trafficking in persons, and others in need of protection. The Sexual Pathways Referral Program, a combined initiative of the government and NGOs, improved access to medical, psychosocial, legal, and counseling assistance for victims. The MGCSP assigned a gender counselor to each county office to increase public awareness of SGBV crimes and refer victims to assistance. LNP officers received training on sexual offenses as part of their initial training.
An overtaxed justice system also prevented timely prosecution; delays in prosecution caused many victims to cease cooperating with prosecutors. Victims’ families sometimes requested money from the perpetrators as a form of redress because of mistrust in the formal justice system. Authorities often dropped cases due to a lack of evidence. The Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) of the LNP reported that courts dropped 50 percent of reported domestic violence cases due to lack of evidence. The ability to collect and preserve evidence of SGBV crimes was also insufficient. On April 10, UNMIL turned over a DNA analysis machine to the MGCSP to strengthen efforts to investigate and prosecute SGBV crimes.
The government raised awareness of rape through billboards, radio broadcasts, and other outreach campaigns. International organizations like The Carter Center and UN Women also engaged the public through awareness campaigns.
Although outlawed, domestic violence remained a widespread problem. In October Front Page Africa reported that a man in Grand Bassa County was arrested for attempting to force himself onto his wife and beating her to death when she resisted. The maximum penalty for conviction of domestic violence is six months’ imprisonment, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. The WACPS received reports on 737 cases of domestic violence between January and July, a 32 percent increase above the 560 cases reported during the same period in 2017. Government and civil society officials suggested that enhanced awareness and confidence in reporting contributed to the increase, however, the number still only captured a fraction of domestic violence crimes committed.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): A 2013 UNICEF study estimated that 66 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 had undergone FGM/C and the practice remains widespread. On January 19, then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order to protect women against domestic violence and prohibit FGM/C of all persons younger than age 18 and persons older than 18 without their consent. The executive order has the effect of law but is only valid for one year unless ratified by the legislature. Prior to the executive order, the government maintained that a 2011 law protecting children against all forms of violence also proscribes FGM/C, but the law did not specifically prohibit FGM/C. The penal code also prohibits causing bodily harm with a deadly weapon. No FGM/C perpetrators were prosecuted during the year.
There was movement toward limiting or prohibiting the practice of FGM/C. Government officials routinely engaged the public, specifically traditional leaders, to underscore the government’s commitment to eliminate FGM/C. The Ministry of Justice and the MGCSP, along with international partners and NGOs, advocated for legislation for an outright ban of FGM/C. The government routinely decried FGM/C in discussions of violence against women, although there remained political resistance to passing legislation criminalizing FGM/C because of the public sensitivity of the topic and its association with particular tribes in populous counties. NGO representatives stated there was little political will within the legislature to take on the issue of FGM/C. In May House Speaker Bhofal Chambers reportedly criticized western countries for classifying FGM/C as a human rights violation. Instead, he suggested that sex reassignment surgery practiced in western countries is a human rights violation. The speaker also reportedly said FGM/C was in line with traditional beliefs so it cannot be a violation of human rights.
The Sande and Poro societies–often referred to as “secret societies”–combine traditional religious and cultural practices, and engage in FGM/C as part of their indoctrination ceremonies. In December, 25 representatives of the societies participated in a conference on FGM/C organized by Women and Solidarity Incorporated. The head of the traditional council of Bong County said, “Practitioners are ready to listen but there’s need to engage traditional leaders at the community level.” The head of the National Traditional Council promised to halt Poro and Sande society activities during the academic year, so as not to prevent young inductees from attending school. The council also undertook an inventory of all existing chapters of the secret societies, also called “bushes” or “groves,” and the head of the council requested local chiefs refrain from opening additional chapters.
For more information, see Appendix C.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: According to a 2015 UN assessment, accusations of witchcraft were common and often had “devastating consequences” for those accused, including trial by ordeal, known locally as “sassywood,” and in some cases, large fines for simple mistakes like inadvertently spilling food when trying to serve it, which is interpreted as a sign of witchcraft. Authorities often failed to investigate or prosecute cases involving trial by ordeal.
Trial by ordeal included: forcing the ingestion of poison; hanging the accused from a tree by the arms or feet for extended periods of time; requiring the accused to retrieve an item from a pot of hot oil; heating a metal object until it glows red and then applying it to the accused’s skin; beatings; rubbing chili pepper and mud into the accused’s bodily orifices (including the vagina); depriving the accused of food and water; requiring the accused to sit in the sun or rain for extended periods; forcing the accused to sit on hot coals; forcing the accused to ingest food or nonfood substances to induce severe vomiting, diarrhea, and other illnesses; and forcing women to parade naked around the community.
There were multiple cases of life-threatening violence against persons accused of witchcraft during the year. On September 4, police reportedly arrested a woman for allegedly poisoning and killing her nine-year-old daughter. She allegedly poisoned her daughter due to “disgrace” because the community accused the girl of using witchcraft to kill two community members. Police arrested the woman and she was charged with murder and release of destructive forces; she remained in prison awaiting trial at year’s end.
Sexual Harassment: The Decent Work Act prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, but it remained a significant problem at work and in schools. Government billboards and notices in government offices warned against harassment in the workplace. The MGCSP and the Ministry of Education trained school administrators, students, and parents from seven of the 15 counties to identify warning signs and report incidents of sexual harassment and violence in schools.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, or involuntary sterilization. For estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence, see Appendix C.
Discrimination: By law, women may inherit land and property, are entitled to equal pay for equal work, have the right of equal access to education, and may own and manage businesses. By family law, men retain legal custody of children in divorce cases. In rural areas traditional practice or traditional leaders often did not recognize a woman’s right to inherit land. Programs to educate traditional leaders on women’s rights, especially on land rights, made some progress, but authorities often did not enforce those rights.
Birth Registration: Liberian nationality law stipulates that children of “Negro” descent born in the country to at least one Liberian parent are citizens. Children born outside the country to a Liberian father are also Liberian citizens. Nevertheless, they may lose that citizenship if they do not reside in the country prior to age 21, or if residing abroad they do not take an oath of allegiance before a Liberian consul before age 23. Children born to non-Liberian fathers and Liberian mothers outside of the country do not derive citizenship from the mother. If a child born in the country is not of “Negro” descent, the child may not acquire citizenship. Non-“Negro” residents, such as members of the large Lebanese community, may not acquire or transmit citizenship. The law requires parents to register their infants within 14 days of birth, but fewer than 24 percent of births were registered. Even more women than usual did not give birth at health facilities during the Ebola crisis, resulting in thousands of unregistered births. The government acknowledged this problem and with the help of UNICEF took steps to register these children. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Education: The law provides for tuition-free and compulsory education in public schools from the primary (grades one-six) through junior secondary (grades seven-nine) levels, but many schools charged informal fees to pay teachers’ salaries and operating costs the government did not fund. These fees prevented many students from attending school. By law fees are required at the senior secondary level (grades 10-12).
Girls accounted for less than one-half of all students and graduates in primary and secondary schools, with their proportion decreasing progressively at higher levels. Sexual harassment of girls in schools was commonplace, and adolescent girls were often denied access to school if they became pregnant. Nonetheless, the country made significant progress in narrowing the gender gap at all levels of education, especially in primary school where the gender parity index went from 88 girls per 100 boys in 2008 to 95 girls for every 100 boys in school in 2017. Students with disabilities and those in rural counties were most likely to encounter significant barriers to education. Only 14 percent of girls in rural areas completed primary school.
Child Abuse: Child abuse was a widespread and persistent problem, and there were numerous cases reported throughout the year. For example, in January a woman burned her young niece’s hands after she ate leftover food without permission. The child’s hands were so severely burned that doctors had to amputate several fingers. Police arrested the woman and she was tried and convicted of aggravated assault on a minor. In July she was sentenced to two years in prison.
Numerous reports of sexual violence against children continued, and the government engaged in public awareness campaigns to combat child rape. According to the MGCSP, more rape cases were reported in the 13-to-17 age group than in any other age group. On April 27, police arrested a man after he allegedly raped a 15-year-old girl. He reportedly offered the girl chocolate and French fries before he allegedly raped the girl after she fell asleep. The LNP charged the man with statutory rape, and he was imprisoned awaiting trial as of November.
The MGCSP reported removing children from the immediate reach of the perpetrators and placing them in safe homes. In 2017 the MGCSP launched a “child hotline” to report crimes against children. As of November the government had not established a call-answering command center or provided a vehicle to respond to calls. Staff was responsible for taking calls on personal telephone lines while working and at home, and they could not always respond.
In October ProPublica reported allegations that Macintosh Johnson, an employee of the More than Me girls academy in Monrovia, had sexually assaulted or raped up to 30 of the academy’s students, including on the academy’s property, and possibly impregnated and transmitted HIV to a number of victims. Johnson was charged with rape and faced trial in 2015; a hung jury resulted in a mistrial, and Johnson died in prison in 2016 awaiting retrial. After the ProPublica report was released, the government established an interministerial committee to investigate the matter.
Early and Forced Marriage: The 2011 National Children’s Act sets the minimum marriage age for all persons at 18, while the Domestic Relations Act sets the minimum marriage age at 21 for men and 18 for women. The Equal Rights of the Traditional Marriage Act of 1998 permits a girl to marry at age 16. For additional information, see Appendix C.
With UNICEF support the MGCSP continued the “End Child Marriage” campaign that began in 2016. During the year the MGCSP communicated with traditional leaders and community members in five counties in their local dialects to raise awareness of the illegality and harm of child marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, and authorities generally enforced the law, although girls continued to be exploited in commercial sex in exchange for money, food, and school fees. Additionally, sex in exchange for grades was a pervasive problem in secondary schools, with many teachers forcing female students to exchange sexual favors for passing grades. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. Statutory rape is a criminal offense that has a maximum sentence if convicted of life imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of child pornography is up to five years’ imprisonment. Orphaned children remained especially susceptible to exploitation, including sex trafficking.
Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: There were cases of infanticide. According to the Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Protection Unit, children with disabilities were often stigmatized, abandoned, neglected, and exposed to risks (including death). Persons with disabilities suffered torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The National Union of the Organization of the Disabled (NUOD) reported that families sometimes abandoned or refused to provide medical care to children with mental disabilities because of the taboo associated with the conditions or fear that the community would label children with disabilities as witches.
Displaced Children: Despite international and government attempts to reunite children separated from their families during the civil war, some children–a mix of street children, former combatants, and IDPs–continued to live on the streets of Monrovia.
Institutionalized Children: Regulation of orphanages continued to be very weak and many lacked adequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition. The MGCSP conducted periodic monitoring of children in orphanages to ensure provision of basic services. Orphanages relied primarily on private donations and support from international organizations such as UNICEF and the World Food Program for emergency food and medical and psychological care. Many orphans received no assistance from these institutions. The MGCSP ran a transit center for vulnerable children, including abandoned and orphaned children that provided for basic needs until reunification with relatives.
Since the country did not have a designated facility for their care, juvenile offenders outside of the MCP were routinely held in separate cells in adult offender cellblocks. Guidelines existed and steps occasionally were taken to divert juveniles from the formal criminal justice system and place them in a variety of safe homes and “kinship” care situations.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html
There was a small Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but these prohibitions were not always enforced. Government buildings were not easily accessible to persons with mobility impairment. Sign language interpretation was often not provided for deaf persons in criminal proceedings or in the provision of state services.
Persons with disabilities faced discrimination in employment, housing, access to all levels of education, and health care. Activists for the persons with disabilities reported that property owners often refused housing to disabled persons. Others claimed that some health-care providers refused to treat persons with disabilities.
According to NUOD persons with disabilities were more likely to become victims of SGBV.
Few children with disabilities had access to education. Public educational institutions discriminated against students with disabilities, arguing resources and equipment were insufficient to accommodate them. Some students with disabilities attended specialized schools mainly for the blind and deaf–but only through elementary school. Students with more significant disabilities are exempt from compulsory education but may attend school subject to constraints on accommodating them. In reality few such students were able to attend either private or public schools.
The right of persons with disabilities to vote and otherwise participate in civic affairs is legally protected and generally respected. Generally, the inaccessibility of buildings posed problems for persons with limited mobility wishing to exercise these rights.
The law requires that the NEC, to the extent practical, make registration and voting centers accessible to persons with disabilities. Despite educational sessions held by the NEC on the issue, persons with disabilities faced challenges during the voter registration and voting periods, including lack of access ramps, transportation to voter registration and polling centers, and mobility assistance at polling centers. The NEC, however, did offer tactile ballots for the visually impaired. The MGCSP and the National Commission on Disabilities are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and implementing measures designed to improve respect for their rights.
Although the law prohibits ethnic discrimination, racial discrimination is enshrined in the constitution, which restricts citizenship and land ownership to those of “Negro descent.” While persons of Lebanese and Asian descent who were born or who have lived most of their lives in the country may not by law attain citizenship or own land, there were some exceptions.
The law recognizes 16 indigenous ethnic groups; each speaks a distinct primary language and is concentrated regionally. Long-standing disputes regarding land and other resources among ethnic groups continued to contribute to social and political tensions.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law prohibits consensual same-sex sexual activity. “Voluntary sodomy” is a misdemeanor with a penalty for conviction of up to one year’s imprisonment. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists reported LGBTI persons faced difficulty in obtaining redress for crimes committed against them, including at police stations, because those accused of criminal acts used the victim’s LGBTI status in defense of their crime. In November Representative Clarence Massaquoi of Lofa County introduced a bill that would amend the penal code to criminalize “same-sex practices.” The proposed bill was not discussed before the legislature went on recess in December.
LGBTI persons continued to record instances of violent attacks, harassment, and hate speech by community and church leaders. LGBTI victims were afraid to report the crimes to police due to fear that police would detain or abuse them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTI victims were also afraid to report due to possible retribution from community and family members For example, a woman reported that her husband beat her and then refused to take her for medical treatment when he found out she was transgender. The victim did not report the crime to police because she was afraid her husband would publically identify her as transgender. LGBTI persons rarely reported rape cases to police due to fear and social stigma surrounding both sexual orientation and rape.
Authorities of the LNP Community Services Section noted improvements in obtaining redress for crimes committed against LGBTI persons due to several training sessions on sexual and reproductive rights. Police sometimes ignored complaints by LGBTI persons, but LGBTI activists noted improvements in treatment and protection from police after LNP officers underwent human rights training.
On January 20, a group of persons in Monrovia reportedly harassed and assaulted five members of the LGBTI community. The group tore the clothes off their bodies and stole their personal belongings and money. Cases of abuse of LGBTI persons may be reported via the Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Protection Unit, the National AIDS Commission, and the INCHR. LGBTI persons were cautious about revealing their sexual orientation or gender identities in public. A few civil society groups promoted the rights of LGBTI individuals, but most groups maintained a low profile due to fear of mistreatment. After moderating a public event for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia in May, a program assistant for the organization Stop AIDS in Liberia received numerous telephone calls threatening his personal safety.
LGBTI individuals faced discrimination in accessing housing, health care, employment, and education. There were several reports from LGBTI activists that property owners refused housing to members of the LGBTI community by either denying applications or evicting residents from their properties. In 2016 the Liberia Business Registry denied registration to an NGO promoting LGBTI rights for “activity which is not allowed in Liberia.” As of December the registration request continued to be denied.
There were press and civil society reports of harassment of persons on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, with some newspapers targeting the LGBTI community. Hate speech was a persistent issue. Influential figures such as government officials and traditional and religious leaders made public homophobic and transphobic statements. For example, a prominent religious leader, Saint Solomon Joah, reportedly threatened to take a police officer with him to a stakeholder’s dialogue on LGBTI rights to arrest members of the LGBTI community in May. In June Joah reportedly called for the arrest of all LGBTI persons, said homosexuality was criminal and ungodly, and called persons in a same-sex marriage “dogs.”
An advocacy organization reported that during the year, a member of the LGBTI community seeking a scholarship offered by Representative Solomon George of the national House of Representatives was told by an office staff member that the representative did not support gay rights and would not give out a scholarship to such persons. The LGBTI community member also reported that the representative’s refusal was because he “acts like a female.”
The Ministry of Health has a coordinator to assist minority groups–including LGBTI persons–in obtaining access to health care and police assistance. Civil society groups trained 62 LNP officers on human rights as part of an effort to educate police on the rights of these communities. Members of the LGBTI community often called upon trained LNP officers, known as protection officers, to intervene in cases of harassment and violence.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law prohibits “discrimination and vilification on the basis of actual and perceived HIV status” in the workplace, school, and health facilities, with conviction of offenses punishable by a fine of no less than L$1,000 ($6.67).
The most recent demographic and health survey in 2013 found no measurable change since 2007 in popular attitudes, which remained broadly discriminatory, toward those with HIV. HIV-related social stigma and discrimination discouraged people from testing for their HIV status, thus limiting HIV prevention and treatment services. According to a Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS report released in July, an estimated 40,000 persons were living with HIV in the country, with approximately 2,300 new cases reported in 2017. Children orphaned because of AIDS faced similar social stigma.
Government ministries developed, adopted, and implemented several strategic plans to combat social stigma and discrimination based on HIV status. The Ministry of Labor continued to promote a supportive environment for persons with HIV and held a workshop in November to discuss the issue. The Ministry of Education continued implementation of its strategic plan to destigmatize and safeguard HIV-positive persons against discrimination.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
The penal code classifies mob violence as a crime. Nevertheless, mob violence and vigilantism, due in part to the public’s lack of confidence in police and the judicial system, often resulted in deaths and injuries. Although mob violence usually targeted alleged criminals, it was difficult to determine underlying reasons since cases were rarely prosecuted.
There were also reports of continued stigmatization of Ebola survivors and their families and health-care workers who had worked in Ebola treatment facilities. According to the Ebola Survivors Network, survivors and their families confronted discrimination from landlords, neighbors, health-care providers, and employers.
Ritual killings reportedly increased during the 2017 election cycle but declined during the year. It is difficult to ascertain exact numbers since ritual killings were often attributed to homicide, accidents, or suicide. There were reports of killings in which perpetrators removed body parts from the victim, a practice possibly related to ritual killings. In August a man allegedly killed a seven-year-old boy in an apparent ritualistic killing. The LNP arrested the suspect but days later he escaped from police custody and as of November was still on the run. According to a press release from the LNP, in response to the suspect’s escape the LNP suspended 10 officers for periods ranging from two weeks to two months; the LNP indefinitely suspended two additional officers and charged them with obstructing government functions.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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 PKK organization in the southeast, although at a markedly reduced level compared with previous years (see section 1.g.).
According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), in the first 11 months of the year, 33 civilians, 185 security force members, and 311 PKK militants were killed in eastern and southeastern provinces in PKK-related clashes. According to the Ministry of Interior, as of October 30, security forces had killed 1,451 PKK members. Human rights groups stated the government took insufficient measures to protect civilian lives in its fight with the PKK in the southeast.
The PKK continued its nationwide campaign of attacks on government security forces and, in some cases, civilians. On March 19, for example, PKK terrorists killed a villager and injured four others in Bitlis Province. On July 31, the wife and infant son of a Turkish soldier were killed in a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Hakkari Province. On October 4, eight Turkish soldiers were killed in an IED attack that represented the largest single loss of life in one PKK attack in at least two years.
During the year the government maintained tight control of its border with Syria, with the stated objective of restricting the entry of ISIS terrorists moving through the country. The government restricted humanitarian access to only those with urgent humanitarian needs, including medical cases.
There were reports Turkish border guards shot at Syrians and asylum-seekers of other nationalities attempting to cross the border, resulting in civilian killings or injuries. Turkish government statistics indicate that authorities apprehended 20-30,000 irregular migrants each month during the year. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, although not on the ground, recorded more than 190 alleged fatalities from January 2017 to June.
There were credible reports that children were among those killed. For example, on March 22, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported descriptions by nine Syrians of 10 incidents between September 2017 and early March in which Turkish border guards shot at them or others ahead of them as they tried to enter Turkey, killing 14 persons, including five children.
In January Turkish Armed Forces launched Operation Olive Branch in Syria’s Afrin district. International observers, including the United Nations, Amnesty International, and HRW, though not on the ground reported that the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkey-supported armed opposition groups caused civilian casualties and destroyed hospitals and protected sites, such as cultural monuments, during the conduct of the operation. The organizations also reported that Turkish forces may have failed to take necessary precautions in some cases to protect civilians from harm during the early days of the operation. Anecdotal evidence suggested Turkish forces later sought to protect the rights of civilians in areas of Syria under Turkish military control. The government stated that its conduct in the Afrin operation was consistent with international law and that the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout the operation. The government’s restrictions on humanitarian assistance and NGO access to Afrin since its seizure of the district early in the year resulted in limited information that would allow for confirmation of government claims.
Within Turkey’s borders, human rights groups documented several suspicious deaths of detainees in official custody, although overall numbers varied. HRFT reported 11 suspicious deaths in prison.
Following the October 2 disappearance of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi after entering the Consulate General of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, the government of Turkey launched an investigation to determine his whereabouts and ultimately the circumstances and cause of his death. On October 19, after Turkish officials alleged a 15-member team of Saudi nationals killed Khashoggi at the consulate, Saudi government officials confirmed Khashoggi’s October 2 murder. On October 23, President Erdogan stated Khashoggi had been murdered in a planned operation and called for the extradition of 18 Saudi nationals considered by the kingdom as potential suspects in the killing (see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Saudi Arabia).
There continued to be some unconfirmed reports of disappearances during the year, some of which human rights groups alleged were politically motivated. Human rights groups claimed 28 individuals disappeared or were the victims of politically motivated kidnapping attempts. For example, Umit Horzum disappeared in December 2017. In April, 133 days after his disappearance, unknown individuals delivered him to police. Following 11 days in police custody, the court released him on April 27.
The government engaged in a worldwide effort to apprehend suspected members of “FETO”, a term the government applied to the followers of Fethullah Gulen also known as members of the Gulen movement. In July Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed that the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) had facilitated the return of more than 100 alleged “FETO” members from 18 countries. In some cases, cooperative governments deported wanted individuals without due process. For example, Turan and Meydan Television reported two Turkish citizens were transferred from Azerbaijan to Turkey without due process in February. Kyivpost.com reported July 16 that on July 12 and 15, MIT brought back from Ukraine two alleged “FETO” members and that a Turkish government official thanked Ukraine’s security services for their assistance. In cooperation with Kosovo authorities, MIT brought six suspects from Kosovo to Turkey in late March.
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 there were reports that some government forces employed these tactics. On February 27, UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, expressed serious concerns about the rising allegations of torture and other mistreatment in Turkish police custody. Melzer said he was alarmed by allegations that large numbers of individuals suspected of links to the Gulen movement or PKK were exposed to brutal interrogation techniques aimed at extracting forced confessions or coercing detainees to incriminate others. Reported abuse included severe beatings, electrical shocks, exposure to icy water, sleep deprivation, threats, insults, and sexual assault. The special rapporteur said authorities appeared not to have taken any serious measures to investigate these allegations or to hold perpetrators accountable.
Human rights groups reported in December that torture and mistreatment in police custody occurred at reduced levels compared with 2017, although they contended that victim intimidation may account for reduced reporting. Reports indicated that police also abused detainees outside police station premises. The HRFT reported that, during the first 11 months of the year, it received 538 complaints related to abuse while in custody, 280 of which alleged torture or inhumane treatment. The HRFT also reported intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common and that victims hesitated to report abuse due to fear of reprisal. Separately, the Human Rights Association reported that, in the first 11 months of the year, it received 2,719 complaints of abuse by security forces, including 284 complaints related to abuse while in detention facilities, 175 complaints of abuse outside detention facilities, and 2,260 complaints of abuse during demonstrations. The government has not released information on whether it undertook investigations into allegations of mistreatment in prison or detention centers during the year.
The government asserted that it followed a “zero tolerance” policy for torture. HRW maintained, however, that it was “not aware of any serious measures that have been taken to investigate credible allegations of torture.” In its World Report 2018, HRW stated: “Cases of torture and ill-treatment in police custody were widely reported through 2017, especially by individuals detained under the antiterror law, marking a reverse in long-standing progress, despite the government’s stated zero tolerance for torture policy. There were widespread reports of police beating detainees, subjecting them to prolonged stress positions and threats of rape, threats to lawyers, and interference with medical examinations.” According to 2017 Ministry of Justice statistics, the government opened 84 criminal cases related to allegations of torture. The government has not released data on its investigations into alleged torture.
The Civil Society Association in the Penal System (CISST) reported complaints of physical violence by prison staff and noted complaints from prisoners in Tarsus and Elazig prisons, who reported inhumane treatment and psychological abuse.
A June report by the Diyarbakir, Van, and Hakkari Bar Associations alleged Turkish soldiers tortured four shepherds in Korgan village, Hakkari Province on May 31. The report asserted that shepherd Nasir Tas suffered severe injuries after soldiers allegedly repeatedly held his head under water.
According to press reports, on June 8, in Istanbul, police detained and beat 22 high school students while they were handcuffed in a police van.
According to media reports, some military conscripts endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in suicide. In May soldiers severely beat a Kurdish-speaking soldier in Van province for speaking Kurdish. Fethi Aydemir suffered serious injury to the skull and internal organ damage as a result. In a separate incident in Gaziantep, a soldier was attacked by fellow soldiers for having a photograph of Selahattin Demirtas, jailed former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on his smartphone.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison facilities in general met international standards for physical conditions in many respects, with certain exceptions. Overcrowding (particularly following the mass detentions after the 2016 coup attempt) and lack of access to adequate health care remained problems.
Physical Conditions: As of November the HRA estimated a total prison inmate population of 260,144 in government-operated detention facilities with a capacity of 211,766 inmates. Prison overcrowding remained a significant problem.
Children were housed in separate prison facilities, where available; otherwise, children were held in separate sections within separate male and female adult prisons. Pretrial detainees were held in the same facilities with convicted prisoners.
The government has not released data on inmate deaths due to physical conditions or actions of staff members.
Human rights organizations asserted that prisoners frequently lacked adequate access to potable water, proper heating, ventilation, and lighting.
Although authorities asserted that doctors were assigned to each prison, a Ministry of Justice Prison and Correctional Facilities official reported to parliament in February that there were 271 doctors, of whom only eight were full-time, serving a prison population of 235,888. Human rights associations expressed serious concern regarding the inadequate provision of health care to prisoners, particularly the insufficient number of prison doctors. The opposition HDP reported in August that there were 1,154 sick prisoners in the country’s prisons; more than 400 of them were in serious condition.
Human rights groups and media reported that, on April 28, prisoner Halime Gulsu died in a Mersin Province prison because she was unable to receive treatment for lupus.
Credible reports suggested that some doctors would not sign their names to medical reports alleging torture due to fear of reprisal, meaning victims were often unable to get medical documentation that would help prove their claims. According to one reported incident in January, an Istanbul University student, Berkay Ustabas, along with two other prisoners were stripped naked by Kirikkale prison authorities and subjected to a “welcome beating” with kicks, punches, and truncheons. According to Ustabas’ lawyer, the prison doctor refused to document the physical signs of abuse.
Chief prosecutors have discretion, particularly under the wide-ranging counterterrorism law, to keep prisoners whom they deem dangerous to public security in pretrial detention, regardless of medical reports documenting serious illness.
Administration: At times authorities investigated credible allegations of abuse and inhumane or degrading conditions, but generally did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner or take action to hold perpetrators accountable. The government did not release data on investigations (both criminal and administrative) of alleged prison violence or mistreatment.
Independent Monitoring: The government allowed prison visits by some observers, including parliamentarians. There were no visits by an international body to the country’s prisons during the year. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited the country in May 2017 and interviewed a large number of prisoners at various sites. As of year’s end, the government had not approved the public release of the CPT report and findings.
The government did not allow NGOs to monitor prisons. The Civil Society Association in the Penal System (CISST) published a report on prison conditions in June, based on information provided by parliamentarians, correspondence with inmates, lawyers, inmates’ family members, and press reports.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits, and the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through 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 insult. 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 criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
Hundreds of incarcerations were widely viewed as related to freedom of expression. In an example of the government’s use of broad definitions of terror to prosecute and intimidate critics, in June, authorities arrested two teenagers who drew a picture of an electric kettle and wrote the name of the pro-Kurdish HDP on a wall in Istanbul’s Gazi neighborhood. The teens were charged with disseminating the propaganda of a terrorist organization. The tea kettle reference came from remarks by jailed HDP presidential candidate Demirtas, who had joked, through social media posts by his lawyers, about tweeting via an electric kettle in his prison cell.
Many in media reported the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding two years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, for insulting the president, the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or state institutions. For example, on July 6, authorities detained four students from Ankara’s Middle East Technical University for insulting the president by carrying a banner depicting President Erdogan as different cartoon animals. Critics of the arrests noted that the cartoon had appeared years earlier and had faced a similar challenge in court, but that the court had ruled that it did not meet the threshold for insult. On July 18, President Erdogan directed prosecutors to start criminal insult proceedings against opposition CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu and 72 other CHP parliamentarians after they shared the same cartoon via Twitter in a sign of support for the university students.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied. The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government only officially recognizes persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups include distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government also characterized those working for Kurdish language outlets as “terrorists” for their alleged ties to the PKK, regardless of their previous work. Information about and access to Kurdish outlets’ imprisoned staff was therefore limited.
The Committee to Protect Journalists claimed that, as of December, there were at least 73 journalists in prison; the Journalists’ Union of Turkey claimed 142 journalists were in prison as of July 20; Reporters without Borders claimed there were 43 journalists in jail as of December 2017; the NGO Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) reported that there were 176 journalists, editors, or media managers in jail as of October 19, the vast majority for alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement. An unknown number of additional journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt, closed media outlets, mostly in 2016-17, that were allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement.
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 many who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators. In January parliament fined Osman Baydemir, a suspended former HDP spokesperson and Sanliurfa parliamentarian, 12,000 lira ($2,290) after he referred to himself as a “representative of Kurdistan” during a December 2017 discussion in parliament.
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that, in certain cases, resulted in enhanced caution in public reporting.
Press and Media Freedom: Mainstream print media and television stations are largely controlled by progovernment holding companies. According to Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), with the sale in March of the large Dogan Media Group to the progovernment Demiroren Group, the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national dailies. Only a 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.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees, although a Kurdish-language radio and television station, Amed Radio-Television, opened following the end of the state of emergency in July.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. Examples include 14 persons affiliated with leading independent newspaper Cumhuriyet convicted April 28 of aiding terrorist organizations and sentenced to prison terms ranging between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. The cases continued at year’s end. Examples of journalists whose detentions were considered politically motivated included four journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. Authorities arrested the four in 2016 and they remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. Examples of convictions condemned by international human rights organizations included six journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison terms February 16 for alleged links to the unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt. Courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the shuttered Zamannewspaper of terrorism-related charges July 6 and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years imprisonment.
On July 12, police in Diyarbakir raided the offices of Kurdish publication JinNews and confiscated the new organization’s computers. On June 28, Istanbul police also raided the office of the Sendika.org news website as part of an investigation into Editor in Chief Ali Ergin Demirhan, who was briefly detained on May 28 on charges of promoting “terrorist propaganda” in a column titled, “We Can Stop Dictatorship.”
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. In December 2017 the government imposed a travel ban on journalist Mesale Tolu, a dual German-Turkish national, when she was charged with membership in a terror organization. In August authorities lifted the travel ban pending the outcome of her trial. Many other journalists remained unable to travel abroad due to travel bans.
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 government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against an individual or publication in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists said the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. On June 20, journalist and editor in chief of the Cagdas Sesnews website, Ece Sevin Ozturk, was arrested and charged with aiding a terrorist organization after the conservative progovernment newspaper Yeni Safak alleged that she had ties to “FETO.”
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government due to fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists currently 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 Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders increased direct censorship of news media, online media, and books. In November the Interior Ministry reported that authorities investigated 631,233 digital materials, monitored 110,000 social media publications, and detained 7,000 individuals for social media posts.
In August, following a steep drop in the value of the lira, the government promised sanctions against “disturbing” comments or social media posts about the economy, effectively criminalizing criticism of the government’s handling of the economy and the crisis. On September 27, media reported that HDP official Idris Ilhan was arrested for “terror propaganda” and “opposition to the capital markets law” after he tweeted on August 13 that “the dollar is up because we are going down.” On September 18, online publication T24 reported that the General Directorate for Security announced that it had initiated 346 investigations on August 12 alone in connection with posts about foreign currency rates.
On February 6, following a request by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK), an Ankara court blocked access to hundreds of websites linked to opponents of Operation Olive Branch including organizations, journalists, and news outlets, as well as some YouTube and Instagram accounts, for allegedly “promoting terrorism, inciting people to crime, and disturbing public security and order.”
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that the country’s largest bookstore chain, D&R, removed some books from their shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The TPA reported 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 TPA 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. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. In some cases, prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulenist books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases, authorities directly banned books because of objectionable content. For example, in May courts banned at least nine Kurdish books written in Turkish, citing counterterrorism. Avesta, the Kurdish publishing company, stated the books included a biography of Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani and Yezidi religious books. In October police confiscated copies of an Avesta book on Sheikh Ubeydullah and the Kurdish Uprising of 1880 at the Batman Book Fair and detained the publishing company’s staff.
Some journalists said their firms fired them or asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. Failure to comply typically resulted in a dismissal, with media groups citing “financial reasons” as a blanket cause for termination.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, and insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. For example, authorities charged Sebla Kucuk with “spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization” after she published translations of Reuters reports and transcriptions from the court hearings of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla and Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who were on trial in the United States for charges related to an Iranian sanctions evasion scheme.
In 2017 the government issued an emergency decree removing the Supreme Board of Election’s authority to fine or halt private radio and television broadcast outlets that violated the principle of equality, which required that broadcasters give equal access to the country’s major political parties. The board’s authority remained curtailed during the year. Critics charged that the move benefited the ruling AKP political party generally, and impacted coverage of the June elections.
The Radio and Television Supreme Council continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). 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.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” For example, on May 29, President Erdogan filed a criminal complaint against CHP candidate Muharrem Ince for allegedly “insulting the president” in claims he made during a campaign rally.
Lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, were also targeted in a significant number of insult-related cases. At year’s end, 6,000 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members were in prison for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
The Ministry of Justice reported that in 2017 it launched 20,000 investigations related to insulting the president. Comprehensive government figures for the year were unavailable at year’s end, but according to media reports, from 2014 through 2017, government authorities filed more than 68,000 insult-related lawsuits against individuals or organizations.
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, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement, or early in the year in connection with opposition to Operation Olive Branch.
In one example, prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end, convicted along with his brother, economist Mehmet Altan, on terror-related charges in February for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. On June 27, a court released Mehmet Altan, with a travel ban and judicial monitoring as conditions as the trial continued. Many observers viewed their prosecution as an effort to intimidate or silence prominent opposition voices.
Foreign journalists were also prosecuted. For example, in October 2017, a court convicted Wall Street Journal correspondent Ayla Albayrak of terrorist propaganda based on a story she wrote on government-PKK clashes, and was sentenced in absentia to two years and one month in prison. Her case remained under appeal at year’s end.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used a variety of pressure tactics that limited freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. In the aftermath of curfews first enacted in 2016 in response to PKK violence, 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.
During the year internet freedom did not improve. The government did not block new sites as frequently in the past, but it continued to restrict access to the internet and did not unblock selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence that the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.
The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2017: Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy highlighted increasing efforts by authorities to control use of virtual private networks and the use of government-employed “armies of opinion shapers” to spread progovernment views online.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including: insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. For example, authorities have blocked Wikipedia and other news and information sites that have content criticizing government policies.
The government-operated BTK is empowered to demand that internet service providers (ISPs) remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($9,500 to $95,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. Under a decree published in the official gazette on July 9, the president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the authority.
The law also allows persons who believe a website has violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order the ISP to remove the offensive content. Government ministers may also order websites blocked, and the regulatory authority is legally compelled to comply within four hours, followed by a court order within 24 hours.
The state of emergency allowed the government expanded powers to restrict internet freedom with reduced parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that are responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals accused of insulting them.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, are required to use BTK approved filtering tools. Additional internet restrictions operated in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, the government blocked at least 54,400 websites during the year. Of those, 51,600 were blocked through a BTK decision and 875 by court order.
In April 2017 the BTK banned Wikipedia from operating in the country due to two terrorism-related articles, pursuant to a law that allows filtering on national security grounds. The BTK also demanded the removal of “offensive content” and that Wikipedia open an office in the country. The organization appealed the decision, which the Constitutional Court upheld on May 5. Wikipedia remained inaccessible in the country without the use of virtual private networks. The government stated the ban would remain in place as long as Wikipedia does not remove content that links the country with support to the terrorist group ISIS.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the first six months of the year, the company received 8,988 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content, more than double compared to the previous six months. According to digital news source The Daily Dot, at year’s end, Twitter had blocked media-related accounts in the country at the government’s request.
In July Russia’s state-controlled Sputnik news agency shut down its Kurdish language website, reportedly in response to a request from Turkish authorities.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the independence of the institutions. Hundreds of additional professors lost their jobs or faced charges due to political speech during the year. The Council of Higher Education reported that, as of July 31, 7,257 academics from more than 100 universities had been dismissed since the 2016 attempted coup under state of emergency decrees. Of those, 5,705 were suspended for allegedly aiding a terrorist organization. Many of those dismissed were prohibited from travelling abroad, as were their spouses and children. During the first half of the year, rectors required the permission of the chairman of the Council of Higher Education to travel abroad. That requirement was lifted in July. Other administrators and some professors were also required to seek permission from supervisors for foreign travel. Throughout the year, courts issued sentences for 28 academics, known as the Academics for Peace, for “terrorist propaganda” after they were among the more than 1,100 signatories of a 2016 petition condemning state violence against Kurds in the southeast and calling for peace. Among them, an Istanbul court sentenced prominent physician and chairwoman of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Sebnen Financi, on December 19 to two years and eight months in prison for “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized legal and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
State of emergency and antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. In May press outlets reported that state broadcaster TRT had banned 208 songs from the airwaves over the previous two years. TRT defended the practice, stating it was respecting the law which forbids the broadcast of content encouraging people to smoke or drink or that conveys “terrorist propaganda.” On May 23, authorities arrested rapper Ezhel on charges of inciting drug use in some of his songs; following a month of pretrial arrest, the court acquitted and released him on June 19. In January Ankara and Istanbul authorities banned actor Baris Atay’s play, Only Dictator, indefinitely citing security concerns.
b. Freedom 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 during a protest. 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 state of emergency and subsequent antiterror law gave governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban widely enacted during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, sometimes using excessive force. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise that they might cause civil disruption.
Throughout the year at the hearings of detained former HDP co-chair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Domestic and international observers were also banned from observing the trial hearings.
The government also selectively restricted meetings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Ankara’s Kizilay Square, and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from gathering there. Although police removed barriers around the human rights monument in Ankara’s Kizilay Square in July, a mobile police presence remained. The government banned many demonstrations outright if they touched on sensitive subjects.
On August 25, Istanbul police began preventing the vigil of the Saturday Mothers–a group who since the 1990s had gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by Turkish security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and call for accountability. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the group was exploiting the concept of motherhood to mask support for terrorism.
In January police prevented HDP lawmaker Ziya Pir, Democratic Regions Party (DBP) co-chair Mehmet Arslan, Democratic Society Congress (DTK) co-chair Leyla Birlik, and other party members from holding a press conference opposing Operation Olive Branch in front of the HDP Diyarbakir provincial headquarters.
Security forces at times responded with excessive force to protests, resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRA and HRFT jointly reported that, in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in 785 demonstrations, detaining 3,697 people and arresting 118 individuals. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted that 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. On June 27, for example, police in Ankara broke a facial bone of a protester in Ankara while detaining her.
On May 1 (Labor Day), authorities restricted rallies in parts of Istanbul and other cities if they were not government sanctioned. In Istanbul, 50 persons participating in the celebrations were detained while authorities closed Taksim Square, the traditional venue for the celebrations. Police roughly arrested protesters who sought to defy the ban on demonstrations by marching towards the square.
On April 25, Istanbul police briefly detained three human rights activists for using the word “genocide” in their statements and on their banners in an April 24 Armenian Remembrance Day commemoration organized by the HRA in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square. Police reportedly told the organizers that the term “genocide” was not permitted, and they did not allow the ceremony to be held.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. For example, police tear gassed and sprayed pressurized water at supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP celebrating the party’s elections performance in June after the demonstrators began throwing stones at police vehicles.
Local authorities issued indefinite bans on LGBTI events in several parts of the country, including for film festivals and other public activities in Ankara and parts of Istanbul. Adana’s governor banned a planned LGBTI pride march in June, and Ankara’s governor extended a ban on LGBTI events through the end of October 2019.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right during the year. Under the state of emergency and using provisions of the antiterror law, the government shut down associations and foundations for alleged threats to national security. The government did not release data on the number of NGOs it closed during the year. According to the HRJP, the government closed nearly 1,500 nongovernmental associations or foundations for alleged threats to national security. Other NGOs reported different statistics, based on different data collection methods. Observers widely reported that the appeals process for institutions seeking redress was opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
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 LGBTI rights, and women’s groups in particular complained that the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and recorded them, interpreting it as a means of intimidation.
In January authorities detained at least 25 members of the conservative Furkan Foundation and closed all of its branches in Adana in connection with the group’s criticism of Operation Olive Branch. In July 2017 authorities detained eight leading human rights activists, including Amnesty International’s Turkey director, and two foreign trainers during a workshop on digital security and stress management that President Erdogan claimed was a “continuation” of the 2016 failed coup attempt. Most were charged with supporting a terrorist organization. All were released from pretrial detention in October 2017, but those arrested still faced charges and prison time at year’s end.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government restricted foreign travel for hundreds of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. On July 25, authorities lifted the foreign travel bans of 155,000 individuals, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement. Authorities in Sirnak province, on the country’s border with Syria and Iraq, designated 12 areas as “temporary security zones” through February 12. The government also limited freedom of movement for the 3.6 million persons from Syria as well as for the approximately 370,000 persons from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries who were present in the country.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Between January and December, authorities apprehended 268,003 irregular migrants attempting to enter Turkey, according to Turkish General Staff and Ministry of Interior data. Multiple sources reported that authorities denied entry to undocumented Iraqis and Syrians during the year. There were reports Turkish border guards intercepted, or summarily deported, Syrians seeking asylum back to Syria. For example, on March 22, HRW reported Turkish forces “routinely intercepted hundreds, and at times thousands, of asylum seekers at the Turkey-Syria border since at least December 2017 and summarily deported them to the war-ravaged Idlib governorate in Syria.” Turkish border guards also reportedly killed or injured Syrian asylum-seekers at the border (see Section 1.a.).
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq have remained closed to all but urgent humanitarian cases since late 2015. Of the 19 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, only three were open for limited civilian access. The rest were for military or military and humanitarian assistance only. Since November 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria had limited registration of asylum seekers to newborn babies and urgent protection cases only, limiting their ability to gain access to social services, including education and medical care.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. In June in the Bornova district of Izmir Province, tensions between local residents and Syrian refugees erupted into violence that continued for three days. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers (also see Refoulement).
UNHCR conducted a number of visits to temporary reception centers in Duzici/Osmaniye and Kayseri, where migrants readmitted from Greece were referred on a temporary basis, but did not have regular, unfettered access. In most cases, these migrants did not have access to legal counsel or interpretation, leaving them vulnerable to refoulement.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. The state of emergency allowed the government to limit citizens’ internal movement without a court order. The new antiterror law allows severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where continuing PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g.).
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt. The government applied travel restrictions to those accused of affiliation with terrorist groups or Gulen movement, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country. The government maintained that these travel restrictions were necessary and justified to preserve security.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
Until September non-Syrian conditional refugees accepted by a third country for resettlement through a UNHCR process also needed to obtain exit permission before leaving the country. In September the government assumed full control of the national asylum system for international protection cases and became the referring authority for all resettlement cases.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The renewal of conflict between the government and the PKK in the southeast in 2015 resulted in hundreds of thousands of IDPs. In some cases those displaced joined IDPs remaining from the conflict between security forces and the PKK between 1984 and the early 2000s. A reduction in urban clashes and government reconstruction efforts during the year permitted some IDPs to return to their homes. Overall numbers remained unclear at year’s end.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation. The government reported that, between 2004 and June, it had distributed more than 1 billion lira ($190 million) to more than 70,000 victims of displacement due to past PKK terrorism in Sirnak province.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
The government took steps during the year to increase services provided to almost four million refugees in the country. A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to hold down irregular migration from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea. As of November 23, the government reported a total of 32,000 interceptions of individuals attempting to leave Turkey via the Aegean. Fewer individuals than in 2017 attempted to leave Turkey through a more dangerous route to Romania via the Black Sea and Evros River through the Greek border.
Refoulement: During the year UNHCR reported 27 cases of possible refoulement of persons of various nationalities, including Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, and Syrians. Reports of detention of larger numbers of individuals, including Syrians and Iraqis, were also received. Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee convention, although there were some unconfirmed cases of possible refoulement and tens of thousands of deportations may have taken place during the year. According to media reports, between January and October, more than 26,000 Afghans and more than 5,000 irregular migrants were deported.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to Syrians while maintaining conditional/subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional/subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR stopped registering persons of concern on September 10 as the Ministry of Interior Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) assumed full control of the national asylum system, including those under international protection. It reported that approximately 370,932 persons of concern were registered with UNHCR as of September 7, including 142,728 who were Iraqi nationals, 171,519 Afghan nationals, 39,220 Iranian nationals, and 5,757 Somali nationals. As of December 13, there were 3,611,834 Syrians registered for temporary protection; as of December 13, there were 143,803 Syrians and Iraqis residing in government-run camps, according to DGMM statistics.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians returned to the country from Greece were detained. UNHCR expressed doubts that all readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and reported that the access of readmitted persons to information, interpretation services, and legal assistance was problematic.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned “conditional refugees” to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are supposed to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the DGMM. Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they have been registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was so burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence, the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages and exposure to unsafe work conditions.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided free access to the public medical system to Syrians registered for temporary protection and subsidized medical care to other conditional refugees. The government also expanded access to education for more than 640,000 of one million school-age Syrian children. Many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier or meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of November 1, the Ministry of National Education reported that 64 percent or 640,000 school-age Syrian children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 36 percent remained out of school during the 2018-19 school year. According to UNICEF, more than 350,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for durable solutions within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 60,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
Temporary Protection: The government offered temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In some provinces, after November 2017, DGMM no longer processed new registrations beyond new babies and highly vulnerable Syrians. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free health care. During the year administration of the camps was handed from the emergency authority to the DGMM, and the DGMM completed the closure of six camps and relocation of approximately 60,000 residents. Remaining residents of the camps received significantly more assistance, including shelter, education, and food support.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. Figures for the year were not available as of year’s end.
Government figures for stateless persons for the year were not available as of year’s end. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. According to public statements by the Interior Minister, as of December there were more than 380,000 babies born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A limited number of domestic and international human rights groups operated throughout the country, although many faced increasing government pressure during the year. Some had difficulty registering as legal entities with the Ministry of Interior. Others faced government obstruction and restrictive laws regarding their operations. Human rights groups reported the government was sometimes unresponsive to their requests for meetings and did not include their input in policy formation. Human rights organizations and monitors as well as lawyers and doctors involved in documenting human rights abuses occasionally faced detention, prosecution, intimidation, harassment, and closure orders for their activities. Human rights organizations reported that official human rights mechanisms did not function consistently and failed to address grave violations.
Human rights groups reported continued and intense government pressure. In Weathering the Storm: Defending Human Rights in Turkey’s Climate of Fear, Amnesty International reported on April 28 that the government used the state of emergency to engage in a sustained and escalating crackdown against civil society by arresting human rights defenders, shutting down organizations (see section 2.b.), and creating a climate of fear.
On November 16, Istanbul police briefly detained 13 prominent civil society figures and academics associated with jailed philanthropist and civil society leader Osman Kavala and his organization, Anadolu Kultur, in an investigation into Kavala’s role in “attempting to overthrow the government” during the 2013 Gezi protests.
The pretrial detention of philanthropist and civil society leader Osman Kavala, without charge since November 2017, continued at year’s end. On August 15, following 13 months of pretrial detention, authorities released from prison pending trial Taner Kilic, the founder and chair of Amnesty International Turkey.
Local and international human rights groups criticized the detentions as politically motivated and lacking evidentiary justification.
HRA reported that as of November 30, its members faced more than 500 legal cases, mostly related to terror and insult charges. HRA also reported that executives of their provincial branches in Malatya, Bitlis, and Tunceli were in prison. HRFT reported its founders and members were facing 30 separate investigations and criminal cases. The harassment, detention, and arrest of many leaders and members of human rights organizations resulted in some organizations’ closing offices and curtailing activities and some human rights defenders self-censoring.
International and Syrian NGOs based in the country and involved in Syria-related programs reported difficulty renewing their official registrations with the government, obtaining program approvals, and obtaining residency permits for their staff. Some noted that documentation requirements were unclear. The government did not renew the registrations of Norwegian Refugee Council, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, People in Need, and other international NGOs during the year.
Government Human Rights Bodies: During the year the government continued to staff its human rights monitoring body, the NHREI. According to press reports, on August 13, the NHREI’s president, Suleyman Arslan, stated that the institution had received 613 applications for assistance in response to alleged human rights abuses in the first six months of the year. Critics claimed the institution was ineffective and unrepresentative.
The Ombudsman Institution operated under parliament but as an independent complaint mechanism for citizens to request investigations into government practices and actions, particularly concerning human rights problems and personnel issues, although dismissals under state of emergency decrees did not fall within its purview. According to online data, in the first six months of the year, the office received 8,584 applications for assistance, the majority of which dealt with public personnel issues. As of July approximately 10,000 cases had been resolved.
The Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Department served as its lead on human rights issues, coordinating its work with the ministry’s Victims’ Rights Department.
Parliament’s HRC functioned as a national monitoring mechanism. Commission members maintained dialogue with NGOs on human rights issues, although activists claimed the commission’s ability to influence government action was limited.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits sexual assault, including rape and spousal rape, with penalties of two to 10 years’ imprisonment for conviction of attempted sexual violation and at least 12 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape or sexual violation. In some cases, the government did not effectively or fully enforce these laws or protect victims. The law prohibits violence against women, but some human rights organizations claimed the government did not effectively enforce it. On February 28, Gamse Kuru was murdered by her ex-husband, after authorities failed to provide her protection. In 2017 Kuru applied for protection from the state, but her request was denied. Following repeated threats, she applied again and the court granted her protection on the same day she was murdered.
The law covers all women and requires police and local authorities to grant various levels of protection and support services to survivors of violence or those at risk of violence. It also requires government services, such as shelter and temporary financial support, for victims and provides for family courts to impose sanctions on perpetrators.
The law provides for the establishment of violence-prevention and monitoring centers to offer economic, psychological, legal, and social assistance. Women’s NGOs asserted there were not enough shelters to meet the needs of the increasing numbers of women applying for assistance and that shelter staff did not provide adequate care and services. Some NGOs noted the lack of services was more acute for women in certain categories, such as elderly and LGBTI women as well as women with older children.
The government operated a nationwide domestic violence hotline. NGOs asserted that the quality of services provided in calls was inadequate for victims of domestic violence. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a serious and widespread problem both in rural and urban areas. According to public opinion polling conducted annually by Kadir Has University’s Gender and Women’s Studies Research Center, violence continued to be the biggest concern for women in the country with 61 percent of respondents citing the issue. Spousal rape is a criminal offense, and the law also provides criminal penalties for conviction of crimes such as assault, wrongful imprisonment, or threats. Despite these measures, the number of killings and other forms of violence against women remained high. According to We will Stop Femicide Association’s November report, 363 women were murdered between January and November.
Courts regularly issued restraining orders to protect victims, but human rights organizations reported that police rarely enforced them effectively. For example, on September 19, Gonul Demir was murdered by her husband despite a restraining order. A women’s rights NGO alleged that capacity constraints as a result of the government’s response to the failed coup in 2016 kept some authorities “too busy” to address complaints of violence against women. Women’s associations also charged that government counselors sometimes encouraged women to remain in abusive marriages at their own personal risk rather than break up families.
Courts in some cases gave reduced sentences to some men found guilty of committing violence against women, citing good behavior during the trial or “provocation” by women as an extenuating circumstance of the crime. For example, in April, an Istanbul court reduced the aggravated life imprisonment sentence for Abdullah Melih Baris to life in prison with possibility of parole due to his good conduct at his hearings. Courts had convicted Baris in 2016 of murdering his girlfriend, Nurcan Arslan. We will Stop the Femicide Association announced that in the first 11 months of the year, courts finalized/reached a verdict in 24 femicide cases. In 10 cases, the court ordered reduced sentences due to the suspect’s “good conduct” or because there had been “severe provocation” to justify the crime.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: So-called honor killings of women remained a problem. Human rights activists and academics alleged that the practice continued across the country. In the eastern province of Igdir, a woman was killed by her two brothers in October. Authorities arrested the suspects and charged them with “voluntary manslaughter by killing a sibling with the intention of honor.”
Individuals convicted of honor killings may receive life imprisonment, but NGOs reported that courts often reduced actual sentences due to mitigating factors. The law allows judges, when establishing sentences, to take into account anger or passion caused by the “misbehavior” of the victim.
Sexual Harassment: The law provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for sexual harassment. If the victim is a child, the recommended punishments are longer. Women’s rights activists reported that authorities rarely enforced these laws.
Gender equality organizations indicated that incidents of verbal harassment and physical intimidation of women in public occur with regularity, and cited a permissive social environment in which harassers feel emboldened as the cause.
Some women’s rights NGOs asserted that weak legal enforcement of existing laws designed to protect women and light sentencing of violent perpetrators of crimes against women contributed to a climate of permissiveness for potential offenders. State of emergency provisions in 2017 increased the number of crimes, including crimes involving threats to women, which may be resolved through mediation instead of the court system. Critics complained the move lowered the severity of potential criminal punishments of perpetrators of violence against women, undermining women’s safety and potentially enabling impunity.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or forced sterilization.
Discrimination: While women enjoy the same rights as men by law, societal and official discrimination were widespread. Women faced discrimination in employment (see section 7.d.).
The constitution permits measures, including positive discrimination, to advance gender equality. To encourage the hiring of women, the state paid social services insurance premiums on behalf of employers for several months for any female employee older than the age of 18. Laws introduced as a gender justice initiative provided for maternity leave, breastfeeding time during work hours, flexibility in work hours, and required childcare by large employers. However, rights organizations, contended that these changes in the legal framework discouraged employers from hiring women and negatively impacted their promotion potential.
Birth Registration: There was universal birth registration, and births were generally registered promptly. A child receives citizenship from his or her parents, not through birth in the country. Only one parent needs to be a citizen to convey citizenship to a child. In special cases in which a child born in the country cannot receive citizenship from any other country due to the status of his or her parents, the child is legally entitled to receive citizenship.
Education: Human rights NGOs and others expressed concern that the law on compulsory education continued to allow some female students to be kept at home and married early. Ministry of National Education statistics cited in June by the Children’s Rights Commission of the Istanbul Bar Association for 2017 indicated that 97.4 percent of students who said they could not continue education were girls. The Education Reform Initiative, an NGO focusing on education, reported in its Education Monitoring Report for 2017-18 that the government took important positive steps to expand girls’ access to education, including by providing conditional cash transfers to incentivize poor families to continue education for their daughters. According to European Statistics Office data, drop-out rates in Turkey were 34 percent for girls and 31 percent for boys in 2017, an improving trend.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in its Education at a Glance report for the year, identified gaps between girls’ and boys’ access to education and reported that nearly 40 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 29 neither continued their education nor joined the labor market.
Child Abuse: Child abuse was a problem. The law authorizes police and local officials to grant various levels of protection and support services to victims of violence or to those at risk of violence. It requires the government to provide services to victims, such as shelter and temporary financial support, and empowers family courts to impose sanctions on those responsible for the violence.
By law, if the victim of abuse is between 12 and 18, molestation results in a three-to-eight-year prison sentence, sexual abuse in an eight-to-15-year sentence, and rape in a sentence of at least 16 years. If the victim is younger than 12, molestation results in a minimum five-year prison sentence, sexual abuse in a minimum 10-year sentence, and rape in a minimum 18-year sentence.
Government authorities increased attention on the problem of child abuse. According to a May 27 report by the Acibadem Crime and Violence Research Center, Child Abuse in Turkey Report-2, the documented number of child sexual abuse victims increased by 33 percent between 2011 and 2016. According to the report, between 2011 and 2016, 21,068 applications were made to children monitoring centers. In 2016 alone, 2,487 girls and 1,124 boys younger than the age of 12 faced sexual abuse. The women’s NGO We Will Stop Femicides reported that, in just the month of July, there were 433 reported cases of child sexual abuse. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, there were 16,348 child sex abuse cases filed in 2017.
Early and Forced Marriage: The law defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage, although children may marry at 17 with parental permission and at 16 with court approval. The law acknowledges civil and religious marriages, but the latter were not always registered with the state.
NGOs reported that children as young as 12 were at times married in unofficial religious ceremonies, particularly in poor and rural regions and among the Syrian population living in the country. Early and forced marriage was particularly prevalent in the southeast, and women’s rights activists reported the problem remained serious.
Separately, women’s rights groups stated that forced marriages and bride kidnapping persisted, particularly in rural areas, although it was not as widespread as in previous years.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The constitution requires the state to take measures to protect children from exploitation. The law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children and mandates a minimum sentence of eight years in prison. The penalty for conviction of encouraging or facilitating child prostitution is up to 10 years’ imprisonment; if violence or pressure is involved, a judge may double the sentence.
The age of consent for sex is 18. In 2016 the Constitutional Court annulled a provision in the criminal code that punished all acts involving children younger than the age of 15 as “sexual abuse.” The law prohibits producing or disseminating child pornography and stipulates a prison sentence of up to two years as well as a fine for violations.
Incest involving children remained a problem, although prosecutions remained minimal. The law provides prison sentences of up to five years for incest.
Many women’s and migrant rights NGOs reported that displaced children, mostly Syrian, remained vulnerable to economic and sexual abuse.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
According to the Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul, there were approximately 14,000 Jews living in the country. Some emigrated due to anti-Semitism.
Jewish citizens expressed concern regarding anti-Semitism and security threats in the country. Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a 2017 Hrant Dink Foundation report on hate speech, there were 1,251 published instances of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the press depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and enemies of the country. The Middle East Media Research Institute documented a significant number of anti-Jewish social media posts in Turkish during May praising Hitler, promoting violence against Jews and the State of Israel, and espousing the involvement of Jews in conspiracies to undermine the country.
The government took a number of positive steps to combat anti-Semitism during the year. On January 25, Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also issued a written statement commemorating the event. In September and December, President Erdogan sent the Jewish Community a public message celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah that highlighted religious diversity as part of the country’s wealth.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. NGOs that advocate for persons with disabilities asserted the government did not enforce the law effectively. In July the Disabled Rights Platform reported that disabled persons continued to face major obstacles in the country.
The law requires all governmental institutions and businesses to provide persons with disabilities access to public areas and public transportation and allows for the establishment of review commissions and fines for noncompliance. The government, nonetheless, made little progress implementing the law, and access in most cities remained extremely limited.
The Ministry of Labor, Social Services, and Family is responsible for protecting persons with disabilities. The ministry maintained social service centers assisting marginalized individuals, including persons with disabilities. The majority of children with disabilities were “mainstreamed” in public schools and there were special education centers for students whose disability precluded them from participating in regular public schools.
The law requires all public schools to accommodate students with disabilities, although activists reported instances of such students being refused admission or encouraged to drop out of school. According to disability activists, a large number of school-age children with disabilities did not receive adequate access to education. The Education Reform Initiative’s Education Monitoring Report for 2017-2018 reported that according to Ministry of National Education statistics on primary, middle and high schools, a total of 349,896 students with disabilities were in school, with 255,169 studying in regular schools and the remainder in either state-run or privately owned special education schools. A Ministry of Labor, Social Services, and Family program allowed individuals with autism to stay in government-run houses and offered state resources to families who were unable to attend to all the needs of their autistic children.
The constitution provides a single nationality designation for all citizens and does not expressly recognize national, racial, or ethnic minorities except for three non-Muslim minorities: Armenian Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Other national or ethnic minorities, including Assyrians, Jaferis, Yezidis, Kurds, Arabs, Roma, Circassians, and Laz, were not permitted to exercise their linguistic, religious, and cultural rights fully.
More than 15 million citizens were estimated to be of Kurdish origin and spoke Kurdish dialects. Security force efforts against the PKK disproportionately affected Kurdish communities in rural areas throughout much of the year. Some predominantly Kurdish communities experienced government-imposed curfews, generally in connection with government security operations aimed at clearing areas of PKK terrorists (see section 1.g.).
Kurdish and pro-Kurdish civil society organizations and political parties reported increasing problems exercising freedoms of assembly and association (see section 2.b.). Hundreds of Kurdish civil society organizations and Kurdish-language media outlets closed by government decree in 2016 and 2017, after the coup attempt remained closed. On December 10, the HRA reported that 2,854 persons including military, police, village guards, PKK members, and civilians, had lost their lives during government-PKK clashes in the southeast since 2016.
The law allows citizens to open private institutions to provide education in languages and dialects they traditionally used in their daily lives, on the condition that schools were subject to the law and inspected by the Ministry of National Education. Some universities offered elective Kurdish-language courses, and two universities had Kurdish language departments, although several instructors in these departments were among the thousands of university personnel fired under official decrees, leaving the programs unstaffed. The law also allows reinstatement of former non-Turkish names of villages and neighborhoods and provides political parties and their members the right to campaign and use promotional material in any language; this right was not protected in practice.
The law restricts the use of languages other than Turkish in government and public services. For example, in August, the Adana Metropolitan Municipality removed Arabic signage on the grounds it did not comply with official regulations.
Although the government officially allows the use of Kurdish in private education and in public discourse, it did not extend permission for Kurdish-language instruction to public education.
Romani communities reported being subjected to disproportionate police violence and housing loss due to urban transformation projects that extended into their traditional areas of residence. The Romani community also faced problems with access to education, housing, health care, and employment. Roma reported difficulty in taking advantage of government offers to subsidize rent on apartments due to discriminatory rental practices. According to Member of Parliament Ozcan Purcu, despite positive changes in perceptions, 96 percent of Roma were unemployed, although many worked in jobs in the informal economy. In line with a national Romani strategy adopted by the cabinet in 2016, the government carried out a number of pilot projects to enhance social inclusion of Romani citizens, including vocational courses offered by the government’s employment agency, IsKur. Roma advocates complained that there was little concrete advancement for Roma. They also complained that, under the state of emergency, NGOs that offered literacy courses to Roma either were shut down or faced severe restrictions.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
While the law does not explicitly criminalize LGBTI status or conduct, provisions of law concerning “offenses against public morality,” “protection of the family,” and “unnatural sexual behavior” sometimes served as a basis for abuse by police and discrimination by employers.
Numerous LGBTI organizations reported a heightened sense of vulnerability under the state of emergency, as well as growing restrictions on their freedom of speech, assembly, and association. During the year the Ankara governor’s office continued its indefinite 2017 ban on all public LGBTI events in the province, citing public safety concerns. In addition to prohibiting the annual pride march, the ban also prevented a screening of the film “Pride” at the Ankara Bar Association’s training center on May 29. The Constitutional Court rejected a request by LGBTI groups for an injunction on the ban without rendering a decision on the case itself. Based on the court’s action, LGBTI organizations appealed the case to the ECHR.
The criminal code does not include specific protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The law allows for up to three years in prison for hate speech or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law’s failure to include protections based on gender identity and noted it was sometimes used to restrict freedom of speech rather than to protect minorities. LGBTI definitions were not included in the law, but authorities reported a general “gender” concept in the constitution provides for protections for LGBTI individuals. KAOS-GL, a domestic NGO focused on LGBTI rights, maintained that due to the law’s failure to recognize the existence of LGBTI individuals, authorities did not provide them social protection.
KAOS-GL reported that some LGBTI individuals were unable to access health services or faced discrimination. LGBTI individuals reported they felt the need to hide their identities, faced mistreatment by health-service providers (in many cases preferring not to request any service), and noted that prejudice against HIV-positive individuals negatively affected perceptions of the LGBTI community.
As of March 2018, individuals were no longer required to undergo compulsory sterilization as a legal precondition to legal recognition of their gender identity.
During the year LGBTI individuals experienced discrimination, intimidation, and violent crimes. Human rights attorneys reported that police and prosecutors frequently failed to pursue cases of violence against transgender persons aggressively. Police often did not arrest suspects or hold them in pretrial detention, as was common with other defendants. When arrests were made, defendants could claim “unjustifiable provocation” under the penal code and request a reduced sentence. Judges routinely applied the law to reduce the sentences of persons who killed LGBTI individuals. Courts of appeal upheld these verdicts based, in part, on the “immoral nature” of the victim. LGBTI advocates reported that police detained transgender individuals engaged in sex work to extract payoffs and that courts and prosecutors created an environment of impunity for attacks on transgender persons involved in sex work.
Violence against LGBTI individuals continued throughout the year. On July 13, a 24-year-old transgender woman was killed in Samsun in an act of bias-motivated violence. Authorities arrested and sentenced him to prison.
On May 30, a refugee transgender woman was attacked by a group of men in Yalova. LGBTI activists stated it was the fourth attack in one week in that city.
For the fourth year in a row, the governor’s office banned Istanbul’s pride march, citing public safety concerns. Despite the ban and heavy police presence, several hundred activists and supporters took part in the event. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up crowds and prevent participants from entering areas in and around Taksim Square, detaining 11 participants. Organizers did not hold a transgender march during the year due to security concerns.
Additional pride marches took place in Mersin, where approximately 100 persons participated despite an official ban, and Izmir, where more than 2,000 marched on June 11. The Adana governor’s office banned the city’s first pride march based on concerns about social sensitivities and public safety.
Some LGBTI groups reported harassment by police, government, and university authorities. University groups in cities across the country complained that rectors had denied them permission to organize. LGBTI organizations reported the government used regular and detailed audits against them to create administrative burdens and threatened the possibility of large fines.
KAOS-GL reported in its 2017 Hate Crime Report that out of 117 cases of violence reported to the organization, only 19 were reported to the police and only seven resulted in a court hearing.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
Many persons with HIV/AIDS reported discrimination in access to employment, housing, public services, benefits, and health care. The Positive Living Association noted that the country lacked laws protecting persons with HIV/AIDS from discrimination and that there were legal obstacles to anonymous HIV testing. Due to pervasive social stigma against persons with HIV/AIDS, many individuals feared the results of HIV tests would be used against them and avoided testing.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Armenians, Alevis, and other Christians remained the subject of hate speech and discrimination. The term “Armenian” remained a common slur. Attacks on Christian and Jewish places of worship were rare, but on April 29, vandals scrawled nationalist graffiti and dumped trash outside an Armenian church in Istanbul. Government authorities, including Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, condemned the attack and opened an investigation, resulting in the detention of a suspect. Between March 16 and 24, courts reportedly arrested 16 members of the Pir Sultan Abdal Culture Association (PSDAK), the largest Alevi organization in the country, who were accused of “aiding a terrorist organization.” PSDAK stated that all indictments of its members failed to associate them with any violence and claimed that they were arrested due to their religious activities.
According to the Hrant Dink Foundation’s Media Watch on Hate Speech Report, an analysis of national and local newspapers between January and April, found 3,076 instances of published hate speech that targeted national, ethnic, and religious groups. The most targeted groups were Armenians, Jews, Greeks, and Syrians.
Atheists also remained the subject of intimidation in progovernment media, albeit at a lower level relative to other religious minorities.