Make up your mind Minister! Terrorists or “a Vibrant Civil Society”

The June 29th edition of the New York Times published an opinion piece by Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bagis in which Bagis attempts to explain away the ugliness of this past summer.   In effect, he argues, the Gezi protests demonstrate what a vibrant democracy Turkey is:

Unquestionably, Turkey has been undertaking the necessary steps for further democratization by expanding the rights and liberties of its citizens…  If there is one major reason behind the recent peaceful protests, it is because a vibrant civil society has flourished in Turkey, thanks to the opportunities we have provided to our people. Besides, be it for environmental issues or individual freedoms, protesting against a democratically elected government without resorting to violence I believe proves Turkish society’s European identity.

This is the same Egemen Bagis who argued in June that anyone who continued to protest in Istanbul’s Taksim Square would be considered by the police to be terrorists or supporters of terrorism and dealt with accordingly.  In part, though, his statement in the Times was correct: by and large, the protestors in Taksim Square did not resort to violence.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the police.  Excessive use of force by police resulted in five deaths and over 8000 injuries, including 11 demonstrators being blinded.

Bagis’ declaration looks to be part of a campaign by the Turkish government to change the public memory of what happened at Taksim Square, as well as to make sure that laws are tightened to make further demonstrations illegal. Political slogans are now banned from soccer matches (looking forward to them trying to enforce that!); Erdogan has called upon supporters to file complaints against neighbors who bang pots and pans in support of the demonstrators; and, for good measure, the police are going to install “tip boxes” in neighborhoods so that anyone who sees behavior believed to be illegal can anonymously notify the police.

In previous posts, we noted the punishment dealt out to reporters and publishers who dared to cover the demonstrations.  Those who gave support to the demonstrators have not fared any better. Koc Holding, one of Turkey’s largest industrial holding companies and owner of a hotel in Istanbul that offered refuge to people fleeing tear gas attacks in Taksim Square, has suddenly had nine of its provincial offices raided and its computers and financial records seized for a tax audit.

The Gezi Protests may well, as Bagis suggests, demonstrate the vibrancy of Turkey’s Civil Society.  But the Turkish government seems to be doing everything in its power to stifle that society’s capacity to express views openly and enjoy the basic rights guaranteed them by international human rights law.

William Jones
Chair, Turkey Country Coordination Group
Amnesty International – USA

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