After a failed military coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016, the Turkish government decided to declare a state of emergency to take required measures in the fight against the putschists, and return to normalcy as soon as possible. Considering the extension of the state of emergency to six months, and all measures taken in this period, this post brings up the controversial question of the legality of the continuing state of emergency and continuing accusations across the country.
Background and the Growing Process
On July 15, 2016, a group in Turkey’s armed forces attempted a military coup to seize control of the government. On July 21, 2016, after the coup failed, Turkish government declared a state of emergency for a period of ninety days pursuant to Article 120 of the Turkish Constitution of 1982, which provides:
“In the event of serious indications of widespread acts of violence aimed at the destruction of the free democratic order established by the Constitution or of fundamental rights and freedoms, or serious deterioration of public order because of acts of violence, the Council of Ministers, meeting under the chairpersonship of the President of the Republic, after consultation with the National Security Council, may declare a state of emergency in one or more regions or throughout the country for a period not exceeding six months”.
Following the failed coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clarified that, “the state of emergency had been declared in Turkey … for a duration of [three] months with an aim to totally and swiftly eliminate the FETÖ/PDY (Gulenist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure) terrorist organization, which attempted a coup, and all of its elements”. On October 19, 2016, Turkey’s parliament ratified a planned extension of the state of emergency for three additional months to crack down on everyone suspected to be followers of the putschists. On January 19 2017, the state of emergency was extended second time, and most recently extended a third time scheduled to end on July 19, 2017. According to Article 121 of the Constitution 1982:
“The [Grand National] Assembly [of Turkey] may alter the duration of the state of emergency, may extend the period for a maximum of four months each time at the request of the Council of Ministers, or may lift the state of emergency”.
With an emphasis on the necessity of a determinative and quick reaction to any acts of violence aimed at threatening or abolishing democracy in states, the contentious counter-measures taken by Turkish authorities after the failed coup require a discussion in the context of human rights considerations.
Assessing under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
After the failed military coup, the government started to arrest, imprison, and fire anyone connected with the putschists. However, detentions and firing of thousands of journalists and academics as a massive political purge under the state of emergency gave a different dimension to the government’s unbounded counter-measures.
Nonetheless, it’s incontrovertible that all enforcements of slander laws to members of opposing groups and critics, attacks on the independence of the judiciary, using media and other state resources in favor of the government, and censoring the internet websites, are employed as policies against putschists to return normalcy to the country cannot be conceded as justifications for fighting against putschists contrary to the international human rights considerations.
Relevantly, on September 23, 2003, Turkey ratified the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as an attempt to ensure the protection of civil and political rights. With regard to the state of emergency, the ICCPR reads in Article 4(1):
“In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin”.
Clearly, a state of emergency is an extraordinary situation in which human rights and freedoms could be suspended temporarily. During the state of emergency, governments have the right to detain and hold suspects without charge. Nonetheless, there are some other fundamental rights and freedoms stated in Article 4(2) of the ICCPR which could not be suspended under any conditions including the right to freedom of thought, freedom from arbitrarily being deprived of liberties, and freedom from torture and inhuman treatment or punishment. From this point of view, holding a large population of the Turkish society, including pro-Kurdish and main opposition Republican People’s Party members of parliament, academics, journalists, and ordinary citizens just because of opposing and criticizing the government’s policies –especially, its quest for constitutional amendments that will be voted on in the referendum on April 2017 on switching to a presidential system– and also infringing media freedom in the country could be considered as violation of Article 4(2) of the ICCPR and that could not be justified under any condition even if done as counter-coup measures. Furthermore, using the failed coup attempt as a cover-up to eliminate and a crackdown on any government opponents and critics regardless of the scope and objective of the coup leaders is a violation of freedom of expression and thought which cannot be derogated under any distressed situations such as the state of emergency. During the continuing state of emergency in Turkey, dismissing about 7,316 academics by the first half of January 2017 from their professions who criticized the government’s national policies or signed peace declaration criticizing curfews declared in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Southeastern districts in 2015 cannot be justified under any circumstances. In this sense, the mentioned counter-measures taken by the Turkish government against the society is clearly refusing the rule of law and fundamental rules of the ICCPR on a large scale.
Accusations Through the Broad Definition of Terrorism
According to the European Court of Human Rights, more than 5,000 cases were filed by Turkish nationals against Turkey relating to the post-coup purge. In the wake of the failed military coup in Turkey, the government launched a purge against alleged supporters of the coup leader Fethullah Gulen, including military officers, academics, and journalists.
As stated by Jonathan Cooper in his manual prepared for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), “[A]n overly broad definition of terrorism can be used [only] to shut down non-violent dissent and undermine democratic society”. There is a similar tendency in Turkey. The counter-measures taken by Turkish authorities in the fight against putschists coup leaders, connected alleged suspects through a broad definition of terrorism.
The overly-broad definition of terrorism, and measures taken to fight against it, are very dangerous because it will impact a large layer of the society, especially ethnic and religious minority groups, peaceful critics, and opponents, by sabotaging their fundamental human rights and liberties, including the right to freedom of expression. Although the Turkish President has said that the main objective of the state of emergency is the total elimination of the “Gulenist Terrorist Organization” and its elements that attempted a military coup. thousands of Turkish scholars were arrested during the state of emergency on a charge related to supporting the terrorist organization, including statements that do not clearly provoke or incite any act of violence. Relevantly, interpretation and application of laws by sabotaging non-derogable fundamental human rights including freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of liberties are all the steps taken to broaden the scope of terrorism.
To be clear, Turkish authorities do not consciously separate terrorist actions from general criticism, or political and ethnic dissents in the country. Therefore all measures were taken under the state of emergency, and within the limits of the international obligations have prepared the grounds to suppress the right to freedom of thought and expression in violation of the rule of law. In simple words, in order to prevent legitimate exercise of the fundamental and non-suspendable human rights, Turkish authorities criminalize not only the acts that are properly accepted as terrorist actions in nature, but also any lawful statements, criticism, demonstrations, meetings, and any other attitudes that do not fall within the scope of terrorism under any circumstances.
It is very clear that Turkish authorities, by defining “criticizing the government’s policies” and “clarification of the opposing views” as terrorist actions have moved away from the main objective of the continuing state of emergency in Turkey. By contrast, all of these attitudes of Turkish authorities towards a large number of the society, mainly academics and journalists, are the significant steps in the direction of restricting democracy and freedom of expression and thought.
Saeed Bagheri is a faculty member at Akdeniz University in Turkey with a Ph. D in Public law and a Master’s of Human Rights Law.