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The end of civil society in Turkey

Five years ago, when meeting counterparts from the Middle East and Europe, we were proud of our vibrant civil society in Turkey. In both western Turkey and the Kurdish region, we had so many active civil society organisations and NGOs dealing with multiple issues – women, children, poverty and development, forced migration, philanthropy, LGBT, environmental movements and so on. From east to west there was great diversity of effective civic organisations.

As someone who has given 20 years to civil society, it hurts to see its decline in Turkey today. Today, the entire civil society in Turkey is under attack. Let us examine the key attacks in the last few years:

In July 2016, after the state of emergency was declared, 1,419 civil society organisations were closed within two years by emergency decree. Lawyers associations and NGOs working on peace, Kurdish culture, children and women’s rights, forced migration, poverty and minority issues, sports associations, solidarity associations, were all closed.

In June 2017, Taner Kılıç, the president of Amnesty International in Turkey was arrested and charged with being a member of a terrorist organisation, namely the Gülen movement that the government accuses of carrying out the 2016 coup attempt.

Then, in July 2017, there was the Büyükada case. Ten human rights defenders, who came together on the island of Büyükada in Istanbul for a workshop on digital security and protection of human rights defenders, were taken into custody during a police raid. Most of them held top positions in Turkish civil society, including the Citizens’ Assembly, Amnesty International, the Women’s Coalition, the Human Rights Agenda Association, the Association for Monitoring Equal Rights and the Rights Initiative. After four months in jail they were released, but banned from travelling abroad. Kılıç has been added to the Büyükada case and stayed in jail for 13 months.

After Büyükada came the arrest of Osman Kavala in October 2017. Kavala is one of the most important figures in Turkish civil society and has been in jail since then without indictment. Erdoğan has accused Kavala of financing “terrorists” – the student group that organised the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since Turkey’s Islamist government came to power in 2002. Three months ago in anticipation of Kavala’s release, we were shocked again when 14 civil society activists, linked to Kavala’s organisation Anadolu Kültür, were also detained. The former head of Open Society (Soros Foundation) and respected law professors were among them. Thirteen were released. Two weeks later, the Open Society Foundation of Turkey announced it would close operations in the country. Kavala’s detention without indictment is still one of the biggest threats to civil society.

These are just a few big cases. But many more court cases against lesser-known human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, peace academics continue today.  

Court trials and imprisonment are not the only methods used by the state to undermine civil society. Last year, new regulations for civil society came into force. All civil society institutions have to send the names of their members to the local government. Last week, a colleague working for an NGO for refugees told me a state official had to accompany them when they do field work. They also want to participate in and record the meeting. My friend asked: “What refugee can tell his/her problems in front of state officials and they will be recorded?”

At the same time, the state is establishing its own civil society organisations. With state support and funding, new NGOs (which we call gongos – government organised non-governmental organisations) have been created, supposedly representing Turkish civil society inside and outside of Turkey. But they do not, and nor will they criticise government policies.

A representative of a human rights organisation recently said to me: “Civil society is dying in Turkey. We need international support as we have lost our breath. Unfortunately most of them are leaving Turkey.”

It is not just civil society that is dying in Turkey today. It is our cultural diversity, governance, and democracy that is dying. And who cares?