[Geneva, Switzerland, 1st & 2nd November 2018] – The International Observatory of Human Rights responded to the unprecedented threat to human rights in Turkey by holding an advocacy mission in the heart of the UN in Geneva. The protest was stand of solidarity outside the UN headquarters on the 1st November and then an international conference on the 2nd November to coincide with the UNESCO International day to end impunity for crimes against journalists.
At the UN protest IOHR Director Valerie Peay condemned the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoogi and voiced support for calls to open a UN investigation for accountability. Peay said “It is encouraging that the Turkish leadership is giving his case so much attention right now. Perhaps there is hope that President Erdogan might respect the rights of those Turkish journalists unjustly jailed and guarantee adequate due process in accordance to the Constitution.”
The protest was to highlight the continuing crackdown on press freedom in Turkey and the incarceration of journalists, often with severe sentences and no recourse to appeal. The protest united exiled journalists, civil society practitioners and members of the European Parliament to campaign for press freedom in Turkey in one voice #FreeTurkeyMedia.
The 2nd November marked the United Nations’ International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. On this occasion The International Observatory of Human Rights organised an international conference to highlight the escalating threats to human rights in Turkey.
Valerie Peay, Director of IOHR welcomed an international panel of European members of parliament, journalists, civil society practitioners and lawyers to discuss real examples of human rights violations in Turkey. The aim was to highlight the need for a change in approach from the International community to address the lack of due process and adherence to the rule of law.
Addressing a large audience at the Swiss Press Club, Valerie set out the agenda of the day “As human rights defenders we have a crucial role, not just highlighting the violations happening in Turkey on a daily basis, but also to ask the question, what is the role of the European Court of Justice, the United Nations, and the Council of Europe in protecting citizens and pushing for legislative reforms for a basic respect of human rights?”
The keynote speaker at the conference was Mr. Takis Hadjigeorgiou, MEP, Vice-President, EP Delegation for Relations with Turkey who appealed to the conference saying “We must not sacrifice our values for the sake of trade and economic interests. Europe needs a democratic Turkey.”
IOHR chief correspondent, Trish Lynch interviewed award winning journalist, Lindsay Snell who was arrested on baseless accusations and suffered incarceration in a Turkish prison herself.
Lindsey Snell stated” “My nationality was the entire reason that I was imprisoned, and they said “we think you may have something to do with the coup attempt. They needed a bargaining chip.”
Lindsey had been living in Istanbul when she travelled to Syria in 2016 and was kidnapped by Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria. She was held in a cave prison by militants even though she was given permission to film in their territory in Syria. Upon escaping, she made her way to the Turkish border dressed in a Burqa to what she thought would be sanctuary only to be arrested as a spy.
Held in terrible conditions for 60 days in prison in Southern Hatay province, Snell shared her experience of being interrogated and held with no recourse to due process. She said, “things were rough, but I knew I was treated better than most of the women in there.”
She also spoke of the ongoing persecution by Turkey who recently issued an Interpol Diffusion order while she was in Iraq doing some interviews.
The conference was divided into three panels to address the pillars of a civil society. The first focused on press freedom entitled “Silencing the Press”. Turkey is now ranked as the worst jailer of journalists worldwide. Abdullah Bozkurt, himself an exiled journalist and President of the Stockholm Center from Freedom shared his in-depth research to expose the shocking number of 239 journalists currently held in prison in Turkey. Journalists have been jailed because they do not align their reporting with Turkish government-controlled media or worse, are branded as terrorists for speaking out against the Turkish regime, or simply by association. Abdullah Bozkurt said “Just by attending the conference today you are labelled a terrorist (by the Turkish authorities)”
Annie van Wezel, former Co-Chair, EESC EU-Turkey Joint Consultative Committee joined the panel to put the suppression of the media into the wider context where she spoke of subtle intimidation of her committee. She said “our partners in the JCC (Joint Consultative Committee for Turkey) started to say different things in private than in public.”
The second panel, Prosecuting the law, discussed the threats and violations facing the judiciary.
Salih Önder, an exiled lawyer and author described the treatment of the Turkish people and the situation in Turkey as “a contemporary genocide’. He was joined by Professor Dr Hüseyin Demir, Professor of Human rights and Constitutional law described the plight of the members of the judiciary who were now disbarred and unable to work, “they expect us to die from hunger with No job”. Prof Demir was animated in his belief that “This is a humanity crisis, not just a legal crisis.”
Natacha Bracq, Programme Lawyer at the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute in Paris discussed the stand still position that certain organisations, such as the European Court of Human Rights, have adopted. Bracq said “I understand the frustration of people in Turkey that the ECHR has shut down applications from Turkey, but in 2017 the court received 90,000 cases. It is quite difficult for them to deal with that many cases”.
The final panel on the Eradication of Civil society began with the presentation of a video testimony from the children of Professor Hasan Hüseyin Günakan who was renditioned back to Turkey from Kosovo in a shocking case of mistaken identity and still languishes in prison there with no recourse for release. Yasemin Aydin used it as an example of the Turkish concept of “civil death” within society.
Julie Ward, MEP, Member of the European Parliament for the North West of England, Member of the Culture and Education Committee roused the audience with a plea “We have to organise. We have to fight back; for human rights- now” as she described her twinning with jailed Turkish painter Zehra Dogan stating “I truly admire [her] creative spirit of resistance”
Laurence Fehlmann Rielle MP, Vice-chair of the Legal Affairs Committee of the Swiss Parliament and Louise Pyne-Jones, Head of Research at IOHR discussed with Ms Ward the pathways available through the European Parliament. Pyne-Jones echoed the other speakers when she said ‘When you hear people’s personal stories it makes it more real… we want to make sure our work is really measurable’.
The conference concluded with Valerie Peay, Director of IOHR asking ‘at what point do we put human rights above trade?’ while inviting the speakers to work together to develop a strategic plan to submit a new petition through the available mechanisms.