Turkey | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2001

2001 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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The debate over conditions for accession to the European Union (EU) began to dominate Turkey’s political scene in 2000. While the coalition government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit demonstrated significant commitment to implementing the necessary economic measures, it has made very little progress on the political reforms required to guarantee democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Turkey’s reluctance to undertake these reforms reflects a struggle within the country between those who advocate membership as the route to modernity and prosperity and the entrenched interests of those who champion the status quo under the pretext of protecting the Turkish founding principles of national unity and secularism.

Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who launched a reform program under which Turkey abandoned much of its Ottoman and Islamic heritage, proclaimed Turkey a republic in 1923. His secular, nationalistic legacy has profoundly influenced Turkish politics ever since, most notably in the post-World War II period. The doctrine of “Kemalism” has been used by the military to justify three coups since 1960. Turkey returned to civilian rule in 1983.

In 1995, the Islamist Refah (Welfare) party took advantage of discontent over corruption, high inflation, and unemployment to win a majority in general elections. After the collapse of a center-right coalition, Refah and the center-right True Path (DYP) formed Turkey’s first Islamist-led coalition government in June 1996. Refah Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan almost immediately found himself at odds with the military, which regards itself as the guardian of Turkish secularism, over such government policies as allowing female civil servants to wear traditional headscarves. Erbakan resigned under intense military pressure in June 1997. Refah was outlawed in January 1998 for “conspiring against the secular order,” and Erbakan and five other Refah leaders were banned from politics for five years. Most remaining Refah MPs launched the Virtue party in February 1998.

A ruling coalition of the center-right Motherland (ANAP), the social-democratic Democratic Left (DSP), and the conservative Democratic Turkey parties under ANAP’s Mesut Yilmaz collapsed in November 1998 over corruption charges. The DSP’s Ecevit headed an interim government until the April 1999 general elections. The DSP won 22 percent of the vote, the far-right National Action Party (MHP) 18 percent, and Virtue 16 percent. ANAP and DYP won 13 and 12 percent, respectively. The Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) did not win the 10 percent of the vote required to send members to parliament, but won control of 37 local administrations despite attempts by Turkey’s chief prosecutor to ban it. Ecevit assembled an unlikely coalition of the DSP, MHP, and ANAP, and won a vote of confidence in June.

Despite several challenges to its cohesiveness, the governing coalition has proved remarkably stable. In February 2000, Ecevit initiated a campaign to amend the constitution to allow a second presidential term for Suleyman Demirel, whose term ended in May. His goal was apparently to prevent rivalry over Demirel’s successor from destabilizing the coalition, which launched an ambitious IMF-backed economic reform program in January. Parliament rejected the amendments in April, leading many to predict serious infighting and perhaps dissolution of the government. However, party leaders unanimously approved the candidacy of Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the chief justice of the constitutional court and an outspoken advocate of democratic reforms. Sezer was elected president by parliament in May.

Sezer’s election was welcomed by Western allies, particularly within the EU. The first Turkish president who is neither a politician nor a general, he has urged relaxation of antiterror laws and other legislation that restricts free speech, political parties, and the rights of Kurds. Although the president’s role is largely ceremonial, it carries a degree of moral influence and he may serve as a power broker in times of crisis. Moreover, the president is far less vulnerable to military pressure than government ministers are, and so he may impart a sense of stability as well as advance his own agenda. Sezer demonstrated his commitment to the rule of law and political reform in August, when he twice vetoed a government decree that would facilitate the removal of public servants suspected of fundamentalist or separatist sympathies. Asserting that laws should be subject to parliamentary approval, Sezer clashed with military leaders who accused him of hindering the fight against radical Islam, and his poll ratings soared. In September, Sezer vetoed a decree on banking reform for the same reason. In October, the constitutional court annulled the law authorizing the government to issue decrees with the force of law.

Since being formally declared a candidate for EU membership in 1999, Turkey has outlined a set of economic and political goals that it must meet in order to fulfill the membership criteria. On the economic side, Turkey has made considerable progress, lifting obstacles to privatization, attracting foreign investment, lowering inflation, and tackling corruption. Further work needs to be done to expand growth and to close a significant income gap between Turkey and the EU; average median income in Turkey is about a third that of Europe. In November, a criminal investigation into ten banks taken under state administration because of corruption and mismanagement led to a loss of confidence in the banking system and a liquidity crisis. A financial collapse was averted in December when the IMF extended an emergency loan on the conditions that Turkey undertake major bank restructuring and increase the pace of privatization.

Political reform, including constitutional reforms and measures to improve human rights, train civil servants, curb the military’s role in politics, and prevent terrorism while upholding freedom of expression and Kurdish cultural rights, presents a greater challenge. The army’s insistence upon protecting Turkish society from the twin threats of political Islam and Kurdish separatism continues to impede political progress. Kurdish and Islamist political parties, organizations, and individuals faced severe harassment, arrest, and other restrictions on political and social freedom during 2000. The Virtue and HADEP parties faced a possible ban by the constitutional court, while HADEP members were arrested for allegedly supporting Kurdish terrorism. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is currently on death row following his capture last year, announced the end of its insurgency in February. Ocalan himself renounced separatism and called for reconciliation. The government rejected his overtures, and although fighting between Kurd separatists and Turkish troops has declined dramatically, Turkey continues to deny Kurds many basic rights.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Turkish citizens can change their government democratically, though the military wields considerable influence in political matters, especially regarding defense and security. The 1982 constitution provides for a parliament, the Grand National Assembly (currently 550 seats), that is directly elected to five-year terms. The assembly elects the president to one seven-year term. Islamist and Kurdish political parties suffered intimidation in advance of parliamentary elections in April 1999. Some 500 HADEP members and supporters were arrested, party rallies were blocked, a small pro-Kurdish party was banned, and ballots cast for HADEP were destroyed. Security forces launched an all-out campaign against “antisecular propaganda,” blocking female Muslim students wearing headscarves from attending classes, jailing a former Istanbul mayor for quoting from an allegedly antisecular poem, and arresting hundreds of Islamists.

The European Commission’s 2000 report on Turkey’s progress toward EU accession stated that in the last year, “the economic, social, and cultural rights situation has not improved, particularly when it comes to the enjoyment of cultural rights for all Turks irrespective of ethnic origin.” However, it welcomed initiatives to encourage debate on these issues, including the publication by a parliamentary human rights commission of nine reports on police brutality and torture in Turkey; the work of the Supreme Board of Coordination for Human Rights, which includes members from all ministries and state organs and has identified key legislative priorities with regard to human rights; and the government’s signing in August 2000 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

The 15-year-old conflict between the Turkish military and the PKK, which has claimed as many as 37,000 lives, continues only sporadically since the PKK announced the end of its insurrection in February. A few splinter Kurdish elements have vowed to continue fighting for a separate Kurdish state, however, and the Turkish military made several incursions into northern Iraq to attack PKK bases there during the year. Four southeastern provinces remain under emergency law. Civil governors throughout the region may authorize military operations, expel citizens suspected of Kurdish sympathies, ban demonstrations, and confiscate publications. During 2000, the government began a campaign of reconciliation in the impoverished region, sending the army to build roads and houses, teach literacy, set up youth clubs, and even reportedly pay for weddings. Local governors reported that more than 2,000 people had returned to their homes in the southeast under a new “return to village” project. However, many of the hundreds of thousands of Kurds whose homes were razed or burned by the military have been placed in “central villages,” which are heavily secured by soldiers in order to prevent villagers from organizing against the state. The army has forcibly depopulated more than half the 5,000 villages and hamlets in the region.

A crackdown on the radical Islamist Hizbollah beginning in January drew international attention to atrocities committed by the group against Kurds since the early 1990s. The organization reportedly tortured and killed some 2,000 Kurdish professionals, politicians, and businessmen between 1992 and 1996 with the tacit consent of Turkish authorities, whose struggle against Kurdish militants was in full swing. In February, new evidence arose that the government of Tansu Ciller in the mid-1990s actually supplied arms to Hizbollah. Observers speculate that having effectively disabled the PKK in late 1999, the government no longer needed Hizbollah’s counterinsurgency efforts, and the crackdown ensued. The group’s leader was killed in a clash with police in January. Raids that followed led to the arrests of some 1,600 suspected Islamist militants, and to the discovery of more than 100 bodies, mostly Kurds, by the end of 2000.

The judiciary is susceptible to government influence through the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which names judges and prosecutors to the high courts and controls appointments and promotions of those in lower courts. The council is appointed by the president, and its decisions are not subject to review. State security courts, which try terrorist offenses, limit procedural safeguards and the right to appeal.

Prison conditions are abysmal, characterized by widespread torture, sexual abuse, and denial of medical attention to inmates. The parliamentary human rights committee has published nine reports on torture in Turkey since May 2000, based on inspections of police stations and prisons between 1998 and 2000. However, little has been done to stop the practice, and the conviction and sentencing of offending officials is rare. Prison riots occur frequently because of overcrowding and anger over conditions. Five people were killed and more than 20 held hostage in two days of unrest sparked by gang rivalry in a western Turkish prison in November. In December, security forces stormed more than 20 prisons in an effort to end a hunger strike by inmates protesting plans to move them to maximum-security facilities. At least 31 people, including two soldiers, were killed in the unrest, which lasted four days in some areas. Parliament approved an amnesty law in December that resulted in the release of some 20,000 inmates by year’s end.

Freedom of expression in Turkey is limited by the criminal code, which forbids insulting state officials and incitement to racial or ethnic hatred. The Anti-Terror Law prohibits separatist propaganda. The military, Kurds, and political Islam are highly sensitive subjects and frequently earn journalists criminal penalties. Following unrest in Turkish prisons in December, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) imposed restrictions on broadcast media, and a state security court ruled to ban the publication or broadcast of “statements from illegal organizations or information liable to incite hatred, hostility, or crimes.” At least three newspapers faced charges or investigation under the measure by year’s end. By June, at least 13 publications, most of them pro-Kurdish, were banned in the southeast. Reporters Sans Frontieres reported that dozens of radio and television stations were suspended during 2000. Journalists and nonjournalists continued to face arrest and prosecution for expression; a university student was detained in May for handing out leaflets seen as insulting to former president Demirel. The books of Kurdish writer Mehmed Uzun were removed from bookshelves in April, and former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan was sentenced to a year in prison for an “antisecular” speech he gave in 1994. In a positive development, pressure from the EU led to a government announcement in December that it would consider allowing limited broadcasting in Kurdish.

Authorities may restrict freedom of association and assembly on the grounds of maintaining public order, and prior notice of gatherings is required. Scores of prisoners’ relatives were arrested in 2000 for demonstrating against new “F-type” prisons, which consist of small cells rather than the traditional large wards. Pro-Kurdish political parties and NGOs face severe harassment and restrictions on their activities. Three Kurdish mayors, all HADEP members, were detained and removed from their posts in February for allegedly supporting terrorism. Scores of demonstrators protesting the arrests were beaten and detained in Diyarbakir. The mayors were later released and allowed to return to their posts after international protests. More than 150 Kurds were detained in March after authorities banned public celebrations of the Kurdish New Year in several cities. Pro-Kurdish human rights activist Akin Birdal was returned to prison in March for speeches in 1995 and 1996 that allegedly incited racial hatred. Birdal had been released temporarily in 1999 for medical reasons. Several HADEP members were arrested in raids on party offices throughout the year, and the party faced a possible ban by the constitutional court at year’s end.

Islamists also faced official harassment. A Turkish court in February upheld a 1999 decision to strip Merve Kavakci, a Virtue MP, of her Turkish citizenship because she attempted to take her oath of office while wearing a traditional headscarf. University students were barred from classes and sometimes arrested for wearing the headscarf. Virtue, like the Kurdish HADEP, was under threat of closure by the constitutional court at the end of 2000. In October, a state security court began the trial in absentia of Fetullah Gulen, a prominent Islamic moderate resident in the United States, on charges of plotting to overthrow the secular government.

Roughly 99 percent of Turks are Sunni Muslim. Religious freedom is restricted by limits on worship to designated sites, constraints on building houses of worship for minority religions, and military-backed government crackdowns on political Islam. A 1998 law placed all mosques under government administration, requiring official authorization for the construction of mosques and forbidding the wearing of uniforms and masks (including headscarves) by demonstrators. In March, two Turkish Christians were detained for "insulting Islam" by distributing copies of the Bible. They were released in May pending trial. Several people were detained overnight in May following a police raid on an apartment where a group was holding Protestant services.

Women face discrimination in family matters such as inheritance, marriage, and divorce. Social norms make it difficult to prosecute rape cases, and the penalty for rape may be reduced if a woman was not a virgin prior to her attack. The justice ministry in 1999 banned the practice of subjecting women and girls to gynecological exams to determine virginity.

Workers may form unions, bargain collectively, and strike, with the exception of public servants and workers engaged in the protection of life and property. This category includes workers in the mining and petroleum industries, sanitation, defense, and education. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Turkey does not adequately protect workers from anti-union discrimination. Thousands of workers held a one-day strike in December to protest government plans to adopt IMF-backed austerity measures.