The UK’s relations with Turkey Contents

6The status of democracy in Turkey

Turkey’s role as a democratic example

159.We heard during our inquiry that Turkey had in the past, including in our own 2012 Report, often been held up as a democratic example for the region. Western politicians in particular hoped that the rest of the Middle East could follow Turkey’s path of democracy combined with economic development and political secularism in a Muslim-majority country. Professor Rosemary Hollis, from City, University of London, told us that a “golden period” for Turkey’s international image was over:

As of, let’s say, 2011 or the eve of the Arab uprisings, Turkey was in an enviable position. Everything was going well. The economy was booming. Countries like Britain had the perception that Turkey represented a model for how democracy and Islam can be combined. Turkey’s relations with all the countries in the Arab world were increasingly positive and there was a kind of lovefest between Erdoğan and Assad of Syria. There was resolution of the Kurdish issues on the cards. It was a kind of golden period, in retrospect, and Turkey even had a formula for regional relations, which was “zero problems with neighbours”. My perception is that, since 2011, many things on many fronts have gone wrong for Turkey.263

160.The FCO’s submission to our inquiry began with a reference to Turkey’s status as a “Muslim majority democracy”. The FCO told us that this was one of the factors that made Turkey a “vital strategic partner”, with which the UK enjoyed a “strong, respectful bilateral relationship”.264 But it was notable that, while the Turkish Embassy’s submission to our inquiry opened with a reference to the “shared values”265 between the UK and Turkey, the FCO’s submission made no reciprocal mention of shared values. Instead, as was described in Chapters 1 and 2, the FCO’s language emphasises a “strategic” relationship with Turkey, the importance of “understanding” the threat that Turkey faces, and placing developments within Turkey surrounding human rights and democracy in that context. Sir Alan Duncan told us that

[Turkey is] facing very serious and specific threats to their country. They have, of course, taken serious action in response. [ … ] This question always needs to be set against the nature of the threats they have been facing. So one can share values, but they are sharing very different circumstances. We in the UK are unable to contemplate in our own politics something happening to us in the way that it happened to them.266

Sir Alan Duncan told us that the equivalent of Turkey’s coup attempt in the UK would involve “a regiment of the Army driving tanks up Whitehall, shooting people on Westminster Bridge, trying to kill the Queen and the Prime Minister, bombing Parliament while it was sitting and taking over the BBC. That is what happened in Turkey”.267

161.Witnesses to our inquiry nevertheless warned us that the Turkish government’s response to the coup attempt had accelerated an erosion of democracy in Turkey that had already been apparent before the coup attempt took place.

Risks and restrictions to democracy in Turkey


162.Democracy, at its most fundamental, requires the free and fair operation of the ballot. The mechanics of democracy in Turkey continue to function, and Bill Park from King’s College, University of London, told us that

The Justice and Development Party (Adelet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AK Party) came to power in November 2002, with 34% of the vote. Its electoral support has since grown, to reach almost 50% in the November 2015 election. In August 2014 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected as President with 52% of the vote.268

163.Some of our witnesses nevertheless warned that, although these elections were free in a procedural sense, the wider electoral environment was of concern. Ziya Meral, from the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, told us that, in his analysis of democracy in Turkey:

None of these calculations have genuinely shown a major irregularity that would call into question the ultimate outcome of an election. [ … ] However, the government has used its privileged position in terms of airtime, state networks and using all the free buses and so on, so it might not necessarily be fully fair.269

Dr Nathalie Martin, a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations and Nottingham Trent University, expressed a similar concern:

Turkey is a democracy in terms of its citizens having the right to vote, but it is certainly not a liberal democracy in terms of the norms and values of the European Union—or the UK. Turkey could now be characterised as an authoritarian democracy given the dominance of the AK Party and President Erdoğan over the state institutions and the media. [ … ] Many layers of scrutiny within Turkish society have disappeared over the past decade as a result of AK Party policy.270

Freedom of expression

164.When assessing the health of the media in Turkey, the FCO told us that, “Turkey’s position as 151st out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index remains a concern”.271 The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) assessed that the Turkish government had taken extensive measures to restrict the media, and said that some of these measures aimed to silence critics:

There continues to be severe violations of media freedom in Turkey. One journalist has died; there have also been extensive detentions, arrests and imprisonments. Journalists have been targeted and threatened, news and media organisations have been banned, media licences have been suspended and media organisations have been shut down. Furthermore, high numbers of media workers are now unemployed and hundreds of press cards have been suspended. [ … ] Turkey has seen the suppression of practically all independent, oppositional media in the country. Any journalist daring to criticize the government on any level or produce reports which make the government look anything less than glowing are a potential target for the security services.272

Witnesses provided us with different figures for the number of journalists currently in prison in Turkey, varying from 56273 through to 90.274 Reporters Without Borders have called Turkey a “world leader in imprisoned journalists”275 and said that “more than 100 journalists have been put in prison, where they continue to await the start of their trials. No fewer than 149 media outlets and 29 publishing houses have been closed arbitrarily. At least 775 press cards have been rescinded and the passports of hundreds of journalists have been withdrawn without any form of judicial proceedings”.276

165.The breadth of the legal definition of ‘terrorism’ in Turkey, combined with the strength of the state’s counter-terrorism powers, were described by some witnesses as enabling the government to restrict the media.277 The NUJ told us that the problem of a broad definition of terrorism preceded the coup attempt, and cited research which showed that “one third, or 12,897, of all terrorism-related convictions world-wide” between 2001 and 2011 “were handed down by Turkish courts”.278 But, after the coup attempt, the powers of the state to counter terrorism were significantly expanded under the State of Emergency, and witnesses told us how these powers were applied against the media. Sir Alan Duncan told us that 178 media outlets had been closed by decree in Turkey after the coup attempt.279 Amnesty International gave the example of one decree, issued on 27 July 2016, which it said “resulted in the shutdown of 131 media outlets, including 16 TV channels, 23 radio stations and 45 newspapers. Access to critical websites and Twitter accounts has been blocked and media outlets have had their licenses revoked.”280

166.The restrictions placed by the Turkish government on the media have frequently been described to us as being politically motivated. The NUJ said that restrictive measures by the government were instilling a culture of “self-censorship”281 in the media. One of Turkey’s oldest and most widely-read opposition newspapers, Cumhuriyet, is among those whose staff have been arrested on anti-terrorism grounds. The NUJ said that

In November [2016], 13 journalists, lawyers and board members, including the chief executive, of the oppositional newspaper Cumhuriyet, were detained as part of an investigation into staff “committing crimes in the name of” the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Gülen.

This followed the driving of the paper’s former Editor-in-Chief, Can Dundar, into exile after his prosecution for producing reports in May 2015 which appeared to implicate Turkish security in transferring weapons to militant groups in Syria. During the judicial process, Dundar was the target of an assassination attempt outside a courtroom. The editorial stance of Cumhuriyet is clear—as the country’s leading secular-nationalist newspaper, to accuse it of links to either the PKK or the Islamic-rooted Gülen movement is particularly absurd.282

167.Kurdish media outlets have been particularly heavily restricted by the Turkish government, again broadly on anti-terrorism grounds and again with the accusation that the measures were politically motivated. The HDP, a pro-Kurdish opposition party in Turkey that is critical of the AK Party, described the extent of the measures against the Kurdish press under Emergency decree powers:

16 TV channels that are critical of Erdoğan—including pro-democracy and pro-labour channels such as IMC TV, HayatinSesi and those broadcasting in Kurdish such as Jiyan TV, Zarok TV—were shut down with a government decree. Among these, Zarok TV is the first children’s channel that broadcasts in Kurdish. Moreover, 24 radio stations, 19 magazines, 5 news agencies and 29 publishing houses were shut down.283

Ertuğrul Kürkçü, a Member of Parliament for the HDP and Honorary President of the party, told us that

We have one Turkish media, with hundreds of TV channels and hundreds of newspapers and printing houses. For all of those, the head writer is Tayyip Erdoğan, the anchorman is Tayyip Erdoğan, and the senior columnist is Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish media is under the total control of the Turkish government. The basic agreement is that the HDP is going to be made unseen, unheard and unfavourable. If HDP is in the papers or on the TV screen, it is just to belittle or defame it.284

Civil society, academia, and freedom of assembly

168.While the Turkish government encouraged Turks to take to the streets to resist the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, witnesses expressed concerns that the government’s attitude to other public demonstrations had been hostile. This implies an inconsistent application of freedom of assembly which, as with the above descriptions of press freedom in Turkey, was upheld when the government agreed with demonstrators but risked being denied when the government was being criticised by demonstrators. In stark contrast to the pro-government demonstrations that occurred during and after the coup attempt, Amnesty International gave the example of the May 2013 anti-government protests against plans to develop the Gezi Park area in Istanbul, and said that

Between 28 May and mid July 2013, demonstrations known as the Gezi Park protests took place in all but two of Turkey’s 81 provinces, ranging between crowds of a few hundred to tens of thousands. Security forces across Turkey repeatedly used abusive and arbitrary force against peaceful protesters, sometimes with fatal consequences. At least four protesters died.285

169.Civil society organisations, such as NGOs and trade unions, have also been restricted in Turkey. Again, this restriction began before the coup attempt and intensified thereafter in the context of the Emergency powers. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has reported that “more than a thousand NGOs and trade unions [ … ] were disbanded and liquidated without judicial proceedings” after the coup attempt.286 The HDP told us that these include at least 199 Kurdish civil society organisations.287 The Trades Union Congress (TUC) described “state oppression” of trade unions in Turkey, rooted in the specific difficulties that Turkish employment law placed on labour organisation, but also in “brutal state responses to public expressions of dissent”.288

170.Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 explained how the Gülenist movement has placed a significant emphasis on establishing schools, and how the Turkish government therefore explained significant purges of the education sector in Turkey as an effort to defeat what they saw as a Gülenist strategy to infiltrate the state and raise revenue through educational institutions. The Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom nevertheless told us that

The scope of the investigations, prosecutions, dismissals, detentions and campaigns of private harassment directed against academics across the country is staggering. These measures preceded the attempted coup of July 15th, though they have now expanded and accelerated under cover of emergency laws.289

171.Some of the figures for the number of academics dismissed in Turkey following the coup attempt are reported in Chapter 4, but witnesses have told us that the dismissal of academics has not just been confined to the removal of perceived Gülenists. Some academics have been restricted under counter-terrorism laws on the basis of allegations that they supported the PKK. Amnesty International gave us the example of the ‘Academics for Peace’ campaign:

In January 2016 investigations were commenced into more than 1,000 academics in Turkey—known as the “[Academics] for Peace”—under laws prohibiting “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation” (the PKK) as well as laws against “denigrating the Turkish nation”. The academics were all signatories to a petition entitled “We will not be a partner to this crime” calling for peace and criticising Turkish military operations in the south east. In a speech on the 15th January President Erdoğan referred to the academics as the “darkest of the dark”, adding that “they commit the same crime as those who carry out massacres”. Some of the academics have since been prosecuted, while others continue to be investigated in criminal and/or administrative proceedings.290

The political opposition, and the case of the HDP

172.Political parties must gain at least 10% of the votes in a general election in order to gain representation in Turkey’s parliament, and four did so at the most recent election. The largest of them, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), holds a majority of the seats in parliament. The smallest of them, the Nationalist Movement Party MHP (MHP), has recently aligned itself with the AK Party on key legislative votes such as the introduction of constitutional amendments to establish an executive presidency.291 As shown by their written submissions to this inquiry, the two other parties—the Republican People’s Party (CHP)292 and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)293—have established themselves in a more consistent role of opposition to the AK Party. But the HDP in particular says that its capacity to oppose the AK Party is being curtailed.

173.The Turkish government has accused some elements of the HDP, which is among other things a pro-Kurdish party, of ties with the PKK. But the HDP has accused the government of targeting it under anti-terrorism legislation because it is a critical voice. For example, the Turkish parliament voted in May 2016 to remove immunity from 138 parliamentarians, including those in all four parties,294 and the HDP told us that its members were specifically targeted:

As a result of this process the immunities of 55 of our 59 MPs were lifted. When the distribution of the records of the accusations among the political parties and President Erdoğan’s declarations are taken into consideration, it becomes clear that the target of the immunity bill was the HDP and its MPs. There are 510 immunity files against 55 HDP MPs, the sum of the files against members of other three political parties is less than this number.

There was a rapid increase in the number of files against our MPs, after Erdoğan’s declaration that our MPs immunities should be lifted and our MPs should be “punished.”[ … ] In the following 4 months 468 new files, 368 of which were against HDP MPs, were prepared. While previously the number of files concerning HDP deputies was 182, for the period between July 2007 and December 2015, by May 2016 the number jumped to 510.295

Thirteen HDP MPs were detained pending trial in November 2013, of which ten remained in custody at the time of writing. There are fears that these arrests, and other actions taken by the state against the AK Party, could constitute a deliberate restriction of the political opposition. The US Department of State expressed deep concern296 about the arrests of HDP parliamentarians in November 2016. The UK supported an EU statement expressing grave concern during the same month but has not issued an independent statement of its own.297

174.We share the concern of the US and the EU about the arrests and continuing detention of elected Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentarians.

The judiciary

175.During our inquiry, we heard concerns that the impartiality of the judiciary was being undermined in Turkey. Part of this was as a result of the dismissals that took place following the coup attempt of 2016. Dr Alan Greene from Durham University, for example, told us that 2,700 judges were removed under the ensuing purge.298 Sir Alan Duncan told us that 293 judges had subsequently been reinstated.299 Professor William Hale, from SOAS, said that

The widespread dismissals of judges and public prosecutors also strengthened the belief that the government was seeking to end the independence of the judiciary.300

But there was also a perception that the culture of judicial independence was itself being undermined. ‘Osman Erturk’, who said that he represented a group of Turkish lawyers who were living in exile after being the subject of dismissals following the coup attempt, wrote that

Judges in Turkey, if they apply the law, are labelled Gülenists. To stay in their positions, they need to get on well with the ruling political elite. This means that the ruling elite’s claims are adopted by the judges as their ultimate decisions.301

176.The democratic institutions and culture of Turkey have significantly weakened in recent years. Freedom of expression is one aspect that has notably deteriorated. There is a fundamental intolerance of alternative narratives in Turkey, with the government broadly suppressing, discrediting, or punishing those who contradict its authorised accounts of sensitive events. The powers afforded by the State of Emergency—combined with a vaguely-framed definition of terrorism, a pliant media, and a politicised judiciary—have allowed the government to silence a broad spectrum of critics by labelling them as “Gülenists” or “terrorists” on the basis of light evidence or broad interpretations. The FCO should press Turkey to adopt a narrow and focused definition of “terrorism”, and to ensure that it—or other procedural methods—are not applied in the politically-motivated sense of silencing the government’s critics.

177.The origins of the deterioration in Turkey’s human rights preceded the coup attempt. However, actions justified in the name of the coup attempt or counter-terrorism—and framed as being temporary, short-term, and necessary—are further undermining the fundamentals of the democratic culture that they are justified as protecting. These actions carry implications that may outlast the causes of the coup itself, and the current threat that Turkey faces from terrorism.

178.When defending human rights, the UK must be both seen and heard. Discretion is sometimes necessary for impact, and private behind–the–scenes meetings will also play an important role in the UK’s influence on human rights in Turkey, but the FCO must be prepared to raise its concerns about Turkey with the Turks publicly. Currently, by giving human rights insufficient prominence in its dialogue with Turkey, the UK risks being perceived as de–prioritising its human rights values. If that impression is sustained, then it would damage the UK’s international reputation and not serve the protection of human rights in Turkey.

179.We recommend that the FCO designate Turkey as a Human Rights Priority Country in its next Human Rights and Democracy Report.

263 Q3 [Professor Rosemary Hollis]

264 Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0010 para 1

265 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 1

266 Q155

267 Q186

268 Bill Park TUR0032 para 1; President Erdoğan was the first directly elected President of the Turkish Republic.

269 Q38 [Ziya Meral]

270 Dr Natalie Martin TUR0016 para 2

271 Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0010 para 8

272 National Union of Journalists TUR0037 Executive Summary

273 National Union of Journalists TUR0037 para 5, citing the Progressive Journalists Association’s (CGD)

274 TUC TUR0015 p 2; Amnesty International told us that “over 100 journalists have been remanded in pre-trial detention since the coup attempt” Amnesty International TUR0017 para 27.

275 Turkey - world leader in imprisoned journalists, Reporters Without Borders, 10 August 2016

276 RSF urges EU leaders to defend media freedom in Turkey, Reporters Without Borders, 2 February 2017

277 See, for example, National Union of Journalists TUR0037 Executive Summary; TUC TUR0015; William Hale TUR0007, para 4; and Q128

278 National Union of Journalists TUR0037 para 12

279 Q200

280 Amnesty International TUR0017 para 27

281 National Union of Journalists TUR0037 para 9

282 National Union of Journalists TUR0037 paras 17—18

283 Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) TUR0036 para 25

284 Q111

285 Amnesty International TUR0017 para 23

287 Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) TUR0036 para 28

288 TUC TUR0015 p 1

289 Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom TUR0005 p 3

290 Nigel Meredith Jones TUR0027 para 26

291 Nigel Meredith Jones TUR0007 para 7

292 Republican People’s Party (CHP) TUR0038

293 Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) TUR0036

295 Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) TUR0036 para 13 and 14

296 US Department of State, Daily Press Briefing, 4 November 2016

297 Q225

298 Dr Alan Greene TRU0006 p 8

299 Q200

300 William Hale TUR0007 para 4

301 Osman Erturk TUR0031 para 33

23 March 2017