Turkey emergency laws create ‘climate of fear’

SILIVRI, Turkey: Cumhuriyet chairman Akin Atalay (right) and his wife Adalet Atalay (left) speak to journalists after being released from Silivri prison, in Silivri, outside of Istanbul yesterday. A Turkish court convicted journalists from the opposition Cumhuriyet Daily newspaper for helping outlawed ‘terrorist’ organizations, but editors remained defiant vowing their “honorable” journalism would not stop. —AFP

ANKARA: Amnesty International yesterday accused the Turkish government of creating a "chilling climate of fear" across society and curtailing the work of human rights activists since a failed 2016 coup. The rights group said freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial have been "decimated" under the state of emergency introduced five days after the attempted putsch on July 15, 2016. More than 1,300 associations and foundations have been shut down under the measures. In addition, more than 140,000 public sector employees have been sacked or suspended including judges over alleged links to putschists or Kurdish militants. Meanwhile, some 50,000 people have been taken into custody on terror charges.

Last week parliament approved the seventh extension of the emergency laws which Amnesty said had undermined the country's "once vibrant independent civil society". The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) staged nationwide rallies to protest the extension, with demonstrators in Istanbul shouting "No to emergency rule" and "Rights, law and justice". Ankara insists that it faces multiple terror threats and that the measures do not affect citizens' everyday lives. In a report titled "Weathering the storm: Defending human rights in Turkey's climate of fear", Amnesty lambasted the authorities' attacks on rights activists and their "abusive" use of the criminal justice system.

"A chilling climate of fear is sweeping across Turkish society," the report said. The group cited examples of individuals it believes were being targeted and unfairly imprisoned including that of civil society activist Osman Kavala, who has been in prison since October. Amnesty has come under pressure itself since Taner Kilic, then the group's chairman in Turkey, was taken into custody last June. Kilic denies charges of belonging to the movement led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of ordering the 2016 coup bid.

"Under the cloak of the state of emergency, Turkish authorities have deliberately and methodically set about dismantling civil society, locking up human rights defenders, shutting down organizations and creating a suffocating climate of fear," Amnesty's Europe director, Gauri van Gulik, said in a statement. Amnesty also highlighted "unfair" restrictions on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) events in Turkey, with a ban in effect in the capital Ankara since November. "The blanket bans on activities threaten the very existence of these organizations and reverse these recent progressive steps to counter prevailing homophobia and transphobia," Amnesty wrote.

Journalists jailed

Meanwhile, a Turkish court on Wednesday convicted journalists from the opposition Cumhuriyet daily for helping outlawed "terrorist" organizations but editors remained defiant vowing their "honorable" journalism would not stop. Cumhuriyet-which means simply "Republic"-was set up in 1924 after the Turkish republic was founded in 1923. The daily has been fiercely critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has run front-page stories that have angered the Turkish head of state.

The court in Silivri, outside Istanbul, handed out multiple sentences to 13 journalists and executives for "aiding and abetting terror organizations without being a member" but they remain free pending appeal."No penalty can stop us from doing journalism. If needed, we will go to prison again but we will continue to do journalism," editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu who was among those convicted told AFP after the verdict. The judge ordered the release of Cumhuriyet chairman Akin Atalay who had been in jail for over 500 days despite his conviction.

Greeted by his wife Adalet and a crowd of supporters shortly after he walked free from prison, Atalay said Cumhuriyet daily would not succumb to pressure or threats. "As we always say they cannot intimidate Cumhuriyet newspaper which will continue to tell the truth to its readers," he told reporters. Atalay said that they were taken "hostages" and the newspaper was demanded as a "ransom" but he added: "This newspaper cannot be bought with money ... our colleagues will show how to do journalism."

Accountant Emre Iper was also convicted on the separate charge of making terror propaganda and sentenced to three years and one month. Three others including the paper's books supplement editor Turhan Gunay were acquitted. They were all charged with supporting, through their coverage, three organisations that Turkey views as terror groups-the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the ultra-left Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, and the Gulen movement blamed for the 2016 failed coup. Supporters of the accused repeatedly said the charges against the journalists were absurd and that the trial was political.

'Serious blow'

Among those convicted are some of the biggest names in Turkish journalism including investigative reporter Ahmet Sik. Sik is seen as one of Turkey's most incisive critics of the Gulen movement and in 2011 wrote an explosive book "The Imam's Army" exposing the grip the group had on key Turkish institutions. He was given a seven-and-a-half year sentence while veteran journalist Kadri Gursel was sentenced to two years and six months.The court handed cartoonist Musa Kart a sentence of three years and nine months while Sabuncu was sentenced to seven years and six months.

Sabuncu said the punishment meted out by the court was not only given to him "but to Turkey and to press freedom in Turkey" as authorities sought to deter others from real journalism. However, he struck a defiant tone, adding that Cumhuriyet would "continue to do honest and honorable" journalism. "It is the sword of Damocles. Do not be scared. Keep on doing journalism. Let's keep on doing journalism together." Gursel said the verdict was "a serious blow" to press freedom. "This means an ultimatum and a threat directed against people who announced their determination and insistence to do journalism," the commentator said. - Agencies