Home thoughts from abroad

December 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Even as Turkey preaches human rights to neighbours, its record at home is patchy

WITH her intense gaze, washed-out jeans and talk of freedom, Dilsat Aktas is a typical left-wing activist. In May the 29-year-old climbed onto an armoured police-carrier in Ankara to protest against the death of another activist, who had suffered a stroke after being sprayed with pepper gas in the Black Sea province of Hopa. Ms Aktas now hobbles around on crutches: the police clubbed her so hard as she tried to escape that they broke her left hip. “The doctor says it will take three years to fix,” she says, dragging on a cigarette.

Her complaints to a local prosecutor were ignored. Omur Cagdas Ersoy, a fellow student, tried to shield her with his body, only to be flogged in his turn. Mr Ersoy is now in an Ankara jail, along with 15 fellow students, facing charges of belonging to an obscure left-wing armed faction that no longer exists. The evidence against the group includes seized left-wing tracts and anti-war posters, but not a single weapon. “They did find a broken umbrella, they took that too,” says Mr Ersoy’s father, Fatih, with a bitter laugh.

Huseyin Aygun, a deputy from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), claims that over 500 students are now in prison for alleged membership of terrorist groups. Many students were demonstrating against the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party and for free education and health care, though some backed neuralgic causes like the right to conscientious objection and Kurdish-language education. Prosecutors routinely send universities indictments against students even before they are read in court. The students are expelled before they are actually convicted. “The courts are stacked with pro-AK judges and the entire system is mobilised against any form of dissent,” says Mr Aygun.

The plight of Turkey’s journalists has tended to overshadow that of its students. Around 76 journalists are now behind bars, more than in China, many of them for supposed terrorist crimes; another big trial began this week. Some 47 lawyers have also just been arrested, including some working for Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). Once lauded for sweeping reforms, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, is growing ever harsher. He has escalated the army’s war against the PKK while rounding up sympathisers in the thousands. Hulya Capar of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) reckons that at least 3,500 Kurdish activists (including 15 BDP mayors) have been arrested since 2009 for alleged membership of the PKK’s urban arm, known as the “KCK.”

Erected around Turkey’s vaguely worded anti-terror laws these cases can be patchy and sometimes absurd. Cengiz Dogan, a Kurd who has been sitting in jail since 2009 for supposed membership of the KCK, was accused in a separate case of attending a PKK event in April. If this were true “the same person was in two different places at the same time,” concludes Ezgi Basaran, the journalist who exposed the inconsistency. Busra Ersanli, a constitutional-law professor, was arrested on terror charges last month after lecturing BDP members on such subversive topics as Basque autonomy. Idris Naim Sahin, the interior minister, seemed convinced of her guilt when he said that Ms Ersanli “had shady relatives.”

The West does not seem to notice the steady deterioration in human rights in Turkey, instead extolling it as a model for the Arab spring. “Europe is too mired in its own problems and America needs Turkey for regional security,” shrugs a European ambassador in Ankara. It will fall to Turks themselves to battle for their rights—so long as they can keep out of jail.

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