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Turkey introduces legislation that threatens to critically impair the work of NGOs

The Turkish government has introduced new counter-terrorism measures that severely threaten the capabilities of NGOs in the region.

The law, which received rushed parliamentary approval “without consultation with the civil society organisations it will affect most”, effectively hands Turkish authorities substantially increased powers of oversight over civil-society groups.

The legislation allows the Interior Ministry or a judge to replace NGO board members with trustees and suspend their operations if members are prosecuted on terrorism charges. There are no restrictions on the actions of trustees once they take up their position – permitted to spend funding and sack or replace employees as they wish.

The introduction of this legislation has drawn widespread condemnation from rights advocates; with many stating that the escalation of governmental oversight could prove detrimental to the work of NGOs in Turkey.

Öztürk Türkdoğan, the president of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, expressed his concern regarding the law’s impact on the work of civil-society groups, stating that:

“In such an atmosphere the directors of the associations cannot feel safe. This means huge power over directors. In a sense, the new act will put all civil-society actors under the tutelage of the Interior Ministry

Ambiguous anti-terror laws have become the centrepiece of Turkish authorities’ crackdown on dissent in recent years, with over 300,000 people sued for membership in a terror organisation under Article 314/2 of the Turkish Penal Code each year. The recent tightening of their grip over NGOs is just the latest in a series of repressive measures justified by the fight against terrorism, with Tarik Beyhan, a director for Amnesty International in Turkey, stating that:

“The new legislation covers individuals who stand trial under the Law on the Prevention of the Financing of Terrorism and also refers to the Anti-Terror Law. The definition of terrorism in this law is quite ambiguous, problematic and far from international standards. Many rights defenders have been charged under this law”

 Emma Sinclair Webb, Human Rights Watch’s senior Turkey researcher, queried the validity of the law’s counter-terrorism pretext, saying that it:

“calls itself one thing, fighting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But within this law is this ulterior motive of going after NGOs on a rather wide basis”

Murat Celikkan, co-director of Hafiza Merkezi, a Turkish human rights organisation, reiterated the law’s oppressive nature, stating that: 

“With this new law, especially for rights-based NGOs which are very important for democracy and reforms in Turkey, it will be impossible to move to act as there is the threat of authorities confiscating everything you have or closing you down without even a trial or any judgment”

Concerns have also been raised with regard to the law’s impact on the persecution of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which often relies on civil-society groups for representation, with the US-based Washington Kurdish Institute stating that:

“The new NGO laws will certainly be used to intensify the persecution of the Kurds, stifle civil society and NGO work related to human rights and freedom of speech”

The imposition of this legislation is a clear breach of Turkey’s commitment to the guarantee of “a safe and enabling environment for civil society organisations” in its 2020 UPR. It further demonstrates the Turkish government’s disregard for freedom of expression and their willingness to exploit the ambiguity of their anti-terror laws to consolidate Erdoğan’s autocracy.

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