Turkey: Democracy in peril – A human rights report

Date posted: May 25, 2015

James C. Harrington, May 2915

Introduction: The promise betrayed

In a springtime of hope, the first decade of the 21st century, Turks and outside observers shared a dream that Turkey might become that bright star in an otherwise muddled constellation of the Middle East—a real democracy in a predominantly Muslim country, committed to civil liberty, human rights, pluralism, and civil society. That hope has disappeared as but a short- lived meteor in the dark, troubled sky. It is no more; and there is little optimism for its return in the foreseeable future. Turkey’s democracy is in regression. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, almost single-handedly, has reversed the course of Turkey’s forward trajectory.

Through authoritarian rule, Erdoğan essentially has seized power, overriding the nation’s constitution. As the suppression of journalists, civil society leaders, and his political opponents crescendos, Erdoğan is proving in spades Lord Acton’s maxim that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Such is the risk of the poison of power. There is a twist of historical irony. Turkey’s downward spiral is even more tragic because of the sudden reversal of the strong democratic reforms that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party had helped engineer in its earlier years in power (“AKP” is the party’s Turkish abbreviation). Erdoğan also has cracked down hard on the Gülen Hizmet movement, a steadfast proponent of civil society, trying to eliminate one of the greatest challenges to his rule. As prime minister, he closed down more than one thousand of its schools and educational programs that serve students for whom this is their only chance to make headway in the world into which they were born. Erdoğan’s hostility toward the movement includes efforts to prevent, Kimse Yok Mu, one of the most respected faith-based charity foundations in the world, from doing its much needed humanitarian work for deprived and suffering people.

Click here to download the report in pdf format.

Given my own religious background and nearly fifty years working with poor and low- income people, I found the attacks on faith- based projects especially disturbing because of their consequence on the lives of particularly vulnerable people.

Despite the international condemnations whirling about his government, even from its staunch ally the United States, as well as internal opposition, Erdoğan continues to aggrandize power in proportion to his efforts to crush any segment of civil society that will not bend it to his myopic will. No matter the risk of peril to his country, Erdoğan has undermined the nation’s balance of powers and subjugated the judicial system, media, regulatory bodies, and civil society in general. He is unilaterally transmuting the constitutional role of the Turkish president as head of state into the head of government, which the constitution actually assigns to the prime minister. His authoritarianism inches toward totalitarianism daily.

These are harsh words, words I never had contemplated writing until spending a long week in Turkey in January 2015. While interviewing a diverse variety of people, I found a stunning turnaround in reality from earlier trips to Turkey. This last time was quite different from the three sets of week- long interviews I had conducted in 2009 and 2010, while writing Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gülen, and an eight-day interfaith trip in 2008 that whetted my interest, as a human rights attorney, in that country.

Having authored or overseen the production of more than a dozen human rights reports for the Texas Civil Rights Project, I decided to prepare this one on the state of civil society in Turkey. Human rights have been my passion during my four-decades-long career as an attorney and the focus of my twenty-seven years as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.

This report is condensed and abbreviated; it unfortunately could have taken the form of a much larger volume or two. However, the endnote references and bibliography offer readers the opportunity to further study this matter, should they wish. I have also set up a Facebook page, Human Rights in Turkey – A Crisis in Civil Liberty, to post ongoing English-language articles about the situation in Turkey. There are a few hundred posted already.

I offer this report for whatever help it may be in highlighting Turkey’s crisis of democracy. I also offer it to those people struggling in that crisis so that they know another individual has heard their plaintive voices and has brought them forward to an additional audience.

Why is this important to Americans, apart from the obvious reason that reversal of democracy in any part of the world affects us all, directly or indirectly? Since 2006, the world has seen no net expansion of democracy; and the average level of freedom on the planet has decreased. Even worse, in the last fifteen years, twenty-five democracies have collapsed, through military coups or the “subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedure.” (1) We do not want to see the collapse of democracy in Turkey, a country of 78 million people, a member of NATO and a reliable geo- strategic ally, at least until recently, (2) and recipient of substantial American financial largesse. But democracy seems to be falling apart there. History teaches that a correlation exists between the strength of a democracy and regional security. (3) The world needs Turkey to continue to be an island of security and stability.

With that said, we also should be concerned as Americans, who have a history of subsidizing private faith-based humanitarian charities and schools, at home and abroad, with supporting any government that would shut down such programs and educational projects and adversely impact hundreds of millions of people around the world, simply because of its own political selfishness. These schools are not proselytizing institutions, but dedicated to learning. They are similar to the schools religious orders like the Jesuits or Dominicans established and dedicated to academic excellence, regardless of the students’ religious beliefs. The humanitarian aid likewise is without religious strings; it is for the needy, irrespective of their confessional faith, if any.

Click here to download the report in pdf format.

Until Erdoğan’s about-face, Turkey was on its way to being a model in the Middle East— that it was indeed possible to have a democratic, secular Muslim country that respected civil liberties and worked toward building civil society.

That model is now gone, and will not return until we as a country join others in the international community in pushing back and supporting those in Turkey who still work for civil society, those who oppose Erdoğan’s unabashed co-opting of democracy.

During Turkey’s recent better times, Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, philosopher, and political commentator, wrote:

I know of no other country where leading writers, artists, journalists, academics and other intellectuals have compiled such an impressive record of bravery and integrity in condemning crimes of state, and going beyond to engage in civil disobedience to try to bring oppression and violence to an end, facing and sometimes enduring severe repression, and then returning to the task. It is an honorable record, unique to my knowledge, a record of which the country should be proud. And one that should be a model for others…. (4)

Unfortunately, Turkey’s authoritarian history seems now to be repeating itself; but so is the bravery and integrity of the country’s leading writers, artists, journalists, academics, and community leaders. (5) Their work may be Turkey’s only hope. To them, I dedicate this report.

Summary of the Report

Democracy and civil society in Turkey are at risk and severely imperiled for the following reasons:

  1. Government crackdown on the press and manipulation of the press through economic means, resulting in self-censorship;
  2. Suppression of freedom of assembly;
  3. Severe limitations on free expression through social media;
  4. Concerted efforts to dismantle the faith-based humanitarian and educational institutions of the Hizmet (Gülen) movement;
  5. Collapse of the checks and balances of the three branches of government and the “fourth estate,” the media, into a single organic autocracy;
  6. Undermining of an independent judicial system;
  7. Increased violence against women and failure of authorities to respond appropriately, and corresponding apathy toward women’s rights;
  8. Enhanced use of the state’s security apparatus to undercut civil liberty;
  9. Unfair trials, designed to punish people for exercising civil liberties and intimidate others from doing the same;
  10. Excessive use of force and other ill- treatment by government authorities;
  11. Immunity of police and security forces from prosecution for abuses; and,
  12. Conditioning public employment on one’s religious or political beliefs.

An April 2014 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., summarized the situation succinctly (and it has worsened since the report) (6):

The idea that governments must be accountable to the people whom they serve and, therefore, cannot be above the law is a central principle of liberal democracy. To that end, a justice system separate from the other branches of government and outside the sway of political pressure has been a crucial structural element of stable and well- functioning democracies. By controlling HSYK [the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors], the prime minister will be able to effectively replace the rule of law with rule by his own fiat.

This authoritarian turn is not a bolt out of the blue. Since his reelection in 2011, Erdoğan has been gathering personal power while eliminating critics and rivals. He has accomplished this, predominantly, by abusing the powers of his office.

By threatening to, or actually, investigating, sanctioning, firing, or imprisoning his enemies, Erdoğan has managed to rein in Turkey’s military, business leaders, and journalists. He also had grand designs to refashion his country’s political institutions. He envisioned creating a presidential system, imbuing the position with unprecedented powers, and assuming the post himself. Last summer’s Gezi Park protests thwarted those ambitions.

Now, motivated by the goal of impeding the progress of corruption investigations into his inner circle, Erdoğan is succeeding in restructuring the Turkish state. These legal changes, if allowed to stand, will have far-reaching implications for the future of democracy in Turkey, and be much harder to undo, than Erdoğan’s previous power grabs. As long as Turkey remains a democracy, and the people can choose a new government, sidelined politicians can be rehabilitated, unjustly jailed opponents can be released, and silenced journalists can regain their voices. But the ability of the voters to make free and informed choices is growing increasingly limited as the government expands its ability to define unacceptable speech and punish it. Moreover, even if power were to change hands, the next government would also benefit from the enhanced authority Erdoğan has given himself; it would be loath to shed it. After having made positive changes that strengthened the rule of law in Turkey just half a decade ago, Erdoğan is now undoing Turkey’s democratic gains in the name of holding on to power.

The Report’s Framework

Since the purpose of this report is to offer an overall comprehensive view for Americans of what is happening in Turkey, it encompasses not only my interviews but also reports of the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights, and non-governmental organizations, as well as press accounts and the writings of other authors and commentators, all of which arrived at, and supported, the conclusions of my own interviews and studies. I have tried to weave all this together in a single document for the benefit of the reader. The report also provides background information to give context for Turkey’s current skid into autocratic rule. (7)

Click here to download the report in pdf format.


1- Thomas L. Friedman, “Democracy is in Recession,” New York Times, February 18, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/18/opinion/thoma s-friedman-democracy-is-in-recession.html?smid=fb- share&_r=2.

2- Editorial Board, “Turkey’s social media power grab,” Washington Post, April 10, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/turkeys- social-media-power-grab/2015/04/10/bc636fd2-dfaa- 11e4-a1b8-2ed88bc190d2_story.html; Editorial Board, “Turkey’s Drift from NATO,” New York Times, March 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/14/opinion/turkey s-drift-from-nato.html?_r=0.

3- Murat Yetkin, “The quality of Turkish democracy matters to us, says US official,” Hürriyet Daily News, April 18, 2015, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/the-quality-of- turkish-democracy-matters-to-us-says-us- official.aspx?pageID=238&nID=81213&NewsCatID=409

4- Noam Chomsky, “Remembering Howard Zinn,” Resist Newsletter, March/April 2010.

5- See, e.g., “Prominent Turkish journalist receives Harvard journalism award,” Hürriyet Daily News, March 13, 2015, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/prominent- turkish-journalist-receives-harvard-journalism- award.aspx?pageID=238&nID=79669&NewsCatID=341 (speech by Hasan Cemal, outlining problematic freedom of speech and press in Turkey).

6- Bipartisan Policy Center, “Legislating Autocracy? Recent Legal Developments In Turkey,” April 2014, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/wp- content/uploads/sites/default/files/BPC%20Turkey% 20Legislating%20Autocracy.pdf.

7- The International Press Institute’s March 2015 report presents a comprehensive overview of the current situation in Turkey. Steven M. Ellis, “Democracy at Risk,” International Press Institute, March 27, 2015, http://www.freemedia.at/fileadmin/resources/applica tion/IPI_Special_Report_-_Turkey_2015_Final.pdf. Two books also offer detailed overviews of events: Abdullah Bozkurt, Turkey Interrupted: Derailing Democracy (New York: Blue Dome Press, 2015); 2015 Turkey Country Report (Washington, D.C.; Rethink Institute, 2015).

Click here to download the report in pdf format.

About the Author

James C. Harrington, a human rights attorney of forty-two years, is founder and director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He graduated from the University of Detroit School of Law in 1973, from where he also holds a master’s degree in philosophy. He taught at the University of Texas School of Law as an adjunct professor for twenty-seven years and continues to teach undergraduate writing courses in civil liberties.

Harrington has handled landmark civil rights cases, published numerous academic and general articles, served on human rights delegations in different areas of the world, and authored or overseen the production of more than a dozen human rights reports.

Harrington writes and speaks widely, nationally and internationally, on human rights and civil society. He is author of The Texas Bill of Rights: A Commentary and Litigation Manual and Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gülen and co-author of Three Mystics Walk into a Tavern: A Once and Future Meeting of Rumi, Meister Eckhart, and Moses de León in Medieval Venice.

Special thanks to Rolando Pérez for his excellent editorial assistance.


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