Closure cases against associations are becoming a new method to hinder the critical work of civil society in Turkey, particularly in relation to women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights and the Kurdish issue. They are part of an oppressive system put in place in recent years, by which the authorities aim to silence critics, concludes a new report published by the Human Rights Association and its partners. They can lead to the associations’ closure and the harassment of their members.
Ankara-Brussels-Paris, September 12, 2023 – In Turkey, closure cases against associations are used to target individual organisations while exerting a chilling effect over civil society. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) and their partner organisations in Turkey, the Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği – IHD) and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (Türkiye İnsan Hakları Vakfı – HRFT) are releasing today a report documenting this practice and its adverse impact on civil society organisations and the communities they support. The report is released on the eve of the sixth hearing in the closure case against the We Will Stop Femicides Platform (Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu – KCDP) before the Istanbul 13th Civil Court of First Instance on September 13, 2023, a case thoroughly documented in the report.
The report, titled “Uncertain and Eerie”: Closure Cases Against Associations in Turkey, reveals a pattern of systematic use of such cases as a tool to crack down on civil society and narrow civic space. It demonstrates that the drastic measure of involuntary dissolution of associations, which the cases can lead to, is abused by the authorities to silence and sanction associations in retaliation for their work.
A climate of fear among civil society organisations
The report argues that baseless closure cases, along with other forms of harassment – which the Observatory has documented in previous publications -, have become a new tool in the hands of the authorities to stifle and divide civil society in Turkey that is critical of government policies and to delegitimize their work. It documents and analyses closure cases against four associations filed as of 2021: the Religious Scholars Mutual Aid and Solidarity Association (Din Alimleri Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği – DİAYDER), the Migration Monitoring Association (Göç İzleme Derneği – GÖÇİZDER), KCDP and the Tarlabaşı Community Centre (Tarlabaşı Toplum Merkezi – TTM).
Based on information gathered by the Observatory, IHD and HRFT in June 2023 and on direct testimonies by representatives of the four associations and the people they support, the report documents the impact of the closure cases on the individual associations, their members and the communities they work with. The report further demonstrates that, regardless of theoutcome, being targeted with a closure case is inherently stigmatizing and isolating for associations, which one respondent described as an “uncertain and eerie position.” In a context where dissenting voices are increasingly targeted and civil society organisations are consistently decredibilised and are the subject of attacks by the authorities and by pro-government media, these cases contribute to fuelling a climate of fear among civil society organisations and to undermining their credibility and standing within the society in Turkey.
“It is disgraceful that we are still talking about serious violations of the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression as the ones described in this report in a country that still pretends to be considered as a candidate for EU accession,” declared Reyhan Yalçındağ, Vice-President of FIDH and IHD representative. “While many NGOs close to the government receive substantial support, those demanding the democratic resolution of the Kurdish issue and independent women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights groups face arrests, closure cases and other forms of harassment, demonstrating that these are politically motivated and pursue the sole aim of crashing dissent.”
“These kinds of attempts to close associations are unacceptable. These practices must immediately cease in light of universal values. Yet, we trust that civil society in Turkey will be able to overcome these issues thanks to the solidarity expressed by those who support us at the national and international level,” added Metin Bakkalcı, Chairperson of HRFT.
Smear campaigns and stigmatisation
All four associations facing closure cases have also been openly targeted by government officials and/or pro-government media.
“The hostile discourse against civil society that has been documented in our previous reports has reached unprecedented levels, with no effective remedy available to those targeted,” said OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock. “Smear campaigns labelling associations as ‘terrorist’ or ‘immoral’ aim to delegitimise the contributions of civil society as part of attempts to stifle democratic debate in Turkey.”
Tomorrow’s hearing in the closure case against KCDP is but one example of this worrying recent trend. The case was filed based only on online complaints against the organisation orchestrated by a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP), and records unlawfully kept by the police about KCDP members. The lack of verified and solid evidence and the source the complaint originated from highlight the political motives that underlie the case: to retaliate against KCDP’s criticism of the government’s gender equality policies amidst rising anti-gender narratives and the increased targeting of women and LGBTQIA+ people in Turkey. The court is expected to deliver the judgment in tomorrow’s hearing.
Broader context of shrinking civic space in Turkey
Against the backdrop of a broader decline in democracy, rule of law and human rights in Turkey, human rights defenders and civil society actors are increasingly targeted by the authorities for their critical stances on government policies and practices. The anti-terrorism law is frequently abused to judicially harass human rights defenders, whereas the restrictive framework applicable to civil society organisations paves the way for administrative harassment, including closure cases. These create a chilling effect not only on the members of the targeted associations but also on other civil society actors who work under the threat of being the government’s next target.
In light of these findings, the Observatory, IHD and HRFT formulate several recommendations to the government of Turkey and international actors addressing the situation of civil society and the right to freedom of association in Turkey.
This report follows a three-part series on shrinking civic space in Turkey. The first report, published in July 2020, examined theright to freedom of assembly; the second report, published in May 2021, focused on freedom of association; and the third report, published in June 2022, focused on administrative harassment. The four reports paint a worrisome picture for human rights defenders and civil society in Turkey.
The report was produced under the auspices of the EU-funded programme “A bottom-up approach for protecting and supporting civil human rights actors in post-pandemic Turkey,” which is managed by HRFT in cooperation with FIDH, IHD, and the OMCT. The project started in 2021 and aims to contribute to a transformative human rights struggle through the development and consolidation of democracy and the rule of law and the respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms in Turkey through advocacy, solidarity, capacity and network building, media activities, sub-granting and support programs.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.
The Human Rights Association (İHD, İnsan Hakları Derneği) was founded on July 17, 1986, by 98 people, including lawyers, journalists, intellectuals, but mainly relatives of political prisoners. The sole objective of IHD is to carry out activities in defense of human rights and freedoms. Together with its headquarters, 27 branches and 7 representations, İHD is Turkey’s biggest non-governmental human rights organisation and has been a member of FIDH since 1996. IHD is also a member of OMCT SOS-Torture Network.
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) is an internationally recognized civil society organization that has been supporting access to treatment and rehabilitation services for those subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment along with their families and has been working to prevent human rights violations most notably torture since 1990. HRFT adopts a holistic treatment approach and abides by the “well-being” definition of the World Health Organization, which includes the physical, psychological, and social well-being of a person. The Foundation has five treatment centers in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Diyarbakır and Van, and a reference center in Cizre.