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Human rights experts fear controversial bill will curb Turkish civil society

Human Rights Politics

Human rights experts fear controversial bill will curb Turkish civil society

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ANKARA: Human rights activists in Turkey have warned that upcoming legislation will further restrict the limited space being allocated to civil society in the country. 

A draft law that is expected to be rushed through the parliament this week has sparked concerns about the underlying motives of the government to put a strain on the country’s fragile civil society actors. 

The bill has been proposed to counter the financing of weapon proliferation, with Turkey at risk of being placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) “gray list” due to insufficient measures against financial crimes. 

However, the law also includes controversial articles allowing the government to appoint trustees to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and to temporarily suspend their activities and assets if members of those groups face a terror-related investigation.

The Turkish branches of international NGOs are also included in the contested legislation. 

Controversial “terror” charges have become a tool of Turkish rulers to continue their severe crackdown on dissidents, including mayors in Kurdish-led municipalities, ex-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) or members of left-wing associations. 

Several municipalities run by the HDP in the country are now governed by government-appointed trustees. 

With the new bill, the organizations’ fundraising activities will also be monitored by the Interior Ministry. 

“The government has introduced a lot of irrelevant items in the draft bill. These provisions can be used randomly against the associations, which would result in the closure of all democratic channels,” Engin Altay, the CHP’s deputy parliamentary head, said on Dec. 21.

Experts underline that the bill aims to suffocate Turkey’s once-vibrant civil society by creating a climate of fear with Big Brother-type surveillance methods.  

Ozturk Turkdogan, president of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, said this new bill would put all civil society actors under the tutelage of the Interior Ministry with routine monitoring of their activities. 

“If there is an element of crime, it is possible to launch a criminal investigation against the activities of associations. But, making this as a regular initiative of the state authorities would interfere into the internal affairs of civil society organizations,” he told Arab News. 

Turkdogan added that this intervention into freedom of association goes against the international norms Turkey should abide by. 

“If it is legislated and if it is not vetoed by the president, we will resort all relevant legislation to the jurisdiction, and we will make sure that this overt intervention into our civil sphere becomes visible on the international platforms,” he said. 

Recently, the Solidarity Network for Human Rights Defenders, a network of 22 human rights organizations in Turkey, complained that NGOs in Turkey are still under government pressure, with their free operational space being constrained due to coronavirus restrictions. 

NGOs are not allowed to hold their general assemblies until Feb. 28, and all outdoor protests have been banned throughout the year. Several doctors have been arrested and investigated after criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. 

CHP lawmaker Utku Cakirozer said that the bill will likely undermine civil society in the country.

“It is against the constitution, it will render NGOs working on human rights dysfunctional. If it is adopted, it will lead to more conflict between domestic law and international norms,” he said.  

There are about 121,000 registered associations in Turkey, while the hundreds of NGOs were permanently closed and their assets seized following the 2016 failed coup attempt and the subsequent state of emergency. 

The bill is expected to be adopted in the Turkish parliament this week.

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