The Turkish government has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to deepen its autocratic rule by silencing critics and passing new laws to limit dissent, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Jan. 13 in its World Report 2021.
“The Covid-19 pandemic became a pretext for the Erdoğan government to double down on autocratic rule and stamp out criticism and opposition at the expense of uniting the country during a public health crisis,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The international focus on Turkey’s foreign policy should not be allowed to overshadow the assault on democratic safeguards at home, which accelerated during 2020.”
The HRW gave several examples documenting how the Turkish government consolidated its authoritarian rule in 2020.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) earlier this year passed an early parole bill that deliberately excluded political prisoners. Separately, it rushed a law that gave authorities greater power to regulate social media.
Another law that it passed was on changing the structure of bar associations, a move that further undermines judicial independence in Turkey. And at the end of the year, it passed a law that enables the authorities to curtail non-governmental organizations' activities.
HRW expresses concern over judicial interference in Turkey
The HRW also touched upon the continued pre-trial detention of several prominent figures, such as human rights defender Osman Kavala, writer Ahmet Altan, former co-chairs of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, and many other members of the HDP.
“Executive interference in the judiciary and in prosecutorial decisions are entrenched problems, reflected in the authorities’ systematic practice of detaining, prosecuting, and convicting on bogus and overbroad terrorism and other charges, individuals the Erdoğan government regards as critics or political opponents,” said the HRW.
The Turkish government continues to misuse terrorism charges to restrict the rights to free expression and association, said the HRW.
“There are no published official numbers of prisoners held on remand or convicted for alleged links with the PKK, although on the basis of the previous years’ figures the number is at least 8,500 and includes elected politicians and journalists,” it said.
The AKP government targets the HDP with accusations of alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The HDP says that calls on the party to distance itself from the PKK are “unfounded” as it has no links to the PKK and will never have.