April 12, 2013

In Turkey, If You Can’t Say Something Nice, You Can’t Say Anything At All

By: Elisha Maldonado

Children are the future of a society, but in Turkey, that future sits in a jail cell. At least that’s what happens to kids attempting to exercise the basic right to say what they please.

In keeping with his aversion for free speech, it was reported  in February that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was suing seven high school students for defamation after they called him “Ampul Tayyip,” or “Light bulb Tayyip,” during a demonstration.  Inoffensive enough, one might think, but knowing the ultra-sensitivity of Erdogan, being linked to an inanimate object is almost as bad as calling him the anti-Christ, as one United States president has been dubbed.

The students, members of the Liseli Genç Umut activist group, were ordered to stand trial on Feb. 14 of this year for their acting out of a sketch criticizing their school curriculum in 2011. They’re asking for a better education? Jail ’em.

It’s just one of many examples of Turkish leaders using absurd lawsuits to shut down opposition.

For further demonstration: Also in February, Sevil Sevimli, a French student of Turkish origin participating in an exchange program at Anadolu University in Eskisehir, was convicted and sentenced to five years, two months and 15 days in jail for being a “member of an armed organization” and “spreading propaganda.” (Turkish officials regard terrorism as most convenient accusation.)

Sevimli’s “terrorist activities” included participating in May Day demonstrations — commemorating the Taksim Square Massacre, the May 1, 1977, clash between leftists and police — holding a banner reading “we want free education,” and attending a concert by the lefty band Grup Yorum.

“I defend democracy and equality,” Sevimli said after a Jan. 16 hearing. “You may call us ‘terrorist’ just because we went to that concert of Grup Yorum, but you know very well who the real terrorists are: Those who exploit the people.”

In another case — just one more example to illustrate the sheer ridiculousness — two university students are facing a two-year jail term for throwing darts at a board plastered with Erdogan’s likeness. Again, these students were acting out a form of protest to the country’s educational reforms. They threw the darts, were intercepted by police and a probe was launched.

“No kinds of opposition are tolerated in Turkey,” Yildirim Beyazit Besim, one of the students said, adding that their last August dart-throwing wasn’t intended as a democratic overture.

The numbers prove Besim’s point: Between Jan. 31, 2012, and August 2012, 2,824 students were arrested, per the Turkish Ministry of Justice’s own report. Of these, 1,778 were arrested; the remaining students were charged, but not arrested.

Whether charged or arrested, the crime was the same: being a member of an armed terrorist organization.

Students aren’t the only ones Erdogan tries to stop from criticizing him. The prime minister’s thou-shalt-not-speak net also ensnares writers and editors, political cartoonists, and on and on.

Turkey must be aware that these cases are a blot on their claims to democracy — how could it not be? It’s facing over 16,000 cases of human rights violations in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

In an Amnesty International March-released report titled “Turkey: Decriminalize Dissent: Time to Deliver on the Right to Freedom of Expression, the human rights group criticizes Turkey’s freedom of expression record, asserting that, “despite a series of legislative reform packages, unfair laws remain on the statute and continue to be abused.”

“The most negative development in recent years,” the report read, “has been the increasingly arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws to prosecute legitimate activities including political speeches, critical writing, attendance of demonstration and association with recognized political organizations – in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

Last month, the Turkish government sent a major judicial reform package to parliament, claiming it will clear up its tarnished image; though critics contradict Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin by saying it doesn’t do enough to change the country’s suspect anti-terrorism law.

Under the reform proposal, Ergun said, those convicted of speaking in favor of terrorism would be “immediately released,” whereas those who have actually incited violence will be charged. At present, anyone writing or repeating a phrase considered to be a terrorist viewpoint are charged with holding the same view. The reform packaged doesn’t address this provision of law.

“There are anti-democratic laws, and, unfortunately, this package of legal reforms is insufficient,” said Gultan Kisanak, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP. “I see it as a waste of parliament’s time.”

Turkey accounts for a third of the 38,000 convictions for terrorism worldwide since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to a 2012 Associated Press survey. Going half-way isn’t going to bring Turkey up to international human rights standards. Must its youth pay the price in the meantime?

Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for the International Business Times. Image of Turkish youth courtesy of Big Stock Photo.