Turkey | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Turkey received an upward trend arrow for passing a package of constitutional reforms, including limiting the death penalty, lifting restrictions on public rallies, and allowing broadcasts in Kurdish.


The debate over conditions for accession to the European Union (EU) continued to dominate Turkey's political scene in 2001. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's coalition government weathered several political storms and, after defusing a financial crisis in February, managed to push through a package of key economic measures in the spring. Progress on the political and legal reforms required to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights was more unsteady. Turkey's reluctance to undertake these reforms reflects a struggle within the country between those who advocate membership in the EU as the route to modernity and prosperity, and the entrenched interests of those who champion maintaining the status quo as the way to protect the Turkish founding principles of national unity and secularism. However, in October, the Turkish parliament passed a series of 34 amendments to the constitution, which covered a wide range of issues including freedom of expression and association, gender equality, and the role of the military in the political process.

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, and 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 Members of Parliament 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 then headed an interim government until the April 1999 general elections, when the DSP won 22 percent of the vote. Ecevit assembled an unlikely coalition of the DSP, the far-right National Action Party (MHP), and ANAP, and won a vote of confidence in June 1999.

Despite several challenges to its cohesiveness, the governing coalition has proved remarkably stable. Party leaders unanimously approved the candidacy of Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who was elected president by parliament in May 2000. Sezer was the chief justice of the constitutional court and had been an outspoken advocate of democratic reforms. The first Turkish president who is neither a politician nor a general, he has urged the loosening of antiterror laws and other legislation that restricts free speech, political parties, and the rights of Kurds. 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 2000, 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.

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, and tackling corruption. Further work needs to be done to expand growth and to close a significant income gap between Turkey and the EU; the average median income in Turkey is about a third that of Europe. Turkey experienced serious financial and economic crises in November 2000 and February 2001, but a financial collapse was averted when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank provided emergency loans worth $15 billion. Following countrywide demonstrations in April, the government adopted a major package of economic reforms. Under the stewardship of new Economy Minister Kemal Dervis, a substantial number of laws were pushed through in the spring of 2001, including measures to reform the banking sector and privatize the telecommunications industry. Turkey received an additional $3 billion loan from the IMF in November 2001.

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, has presented 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, although 2001 was marked by a greater willingness by both politicians and the media to openly debate the military's role in the country's political affairs. Nevertheless, Kurdish and Islamist political parties, organizations, and individuals faced severe harassment, arrest, and other restrictions on political and social freedom throughout the year. In June, the constitutional court ordered the dissolution of the Virtue party on the grounds of antisecular activities. The breakup of Virtue led to the creation of two new parties, the conservative Saadet (Happiness) Party and the reformist Justice and Development Party, led by the popular former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On October 3, the parliament adopted a package of 34 constitutional amendments by 474 votes to 16, which introduced new provisions on issues such as freedom of thought and expression, the prevention of torture, the strengthening of civilian authority, freedom of association, and gender equality.

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), which is directly elected to five-year terms. The assembly elects the president to one seven-year term. The National Security Council (NSC), a military-dominated body, has a policy-setting role. One amendment passed in October aims to reduce the military's influence in politics by increasing the number of civilian representatives in the NSC from five to nine (there are five military representatives), as well as emphasizing the "advisory" nature of the body.

The European Commission's 2001 report on Turkey's progress toward EU accession stated that "the constitutional amendments adopted by the Turkish Parliament on 3 October 2001 are a significant step towards strengthening guarantees in the fields of human rights and fundamental freedoms." However, it cautioned that "despite these changes, a number of restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms have remained" and noted that the extent to which individuals would enjoy real improvements in their rights would be dependent on the details of implementing legislation as well as the practical application of the law.

The 16-year-old conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has claimed as many as 37,000 lives, has continued only sporadically since the PKK announced the end of its insurrection in February 2000. (Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999 and is currently on death row.) Ocalan himself renounced separatism and called for reconciliation, but a few splinter Kurdish elements have vowed to continue fighting for a separate Kurdish state. In 1999, the Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HADEP) won control of 37 local administrations despite attempts by Turkey's chief prosecutor to ban it. However, 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, and set up youth clubs. 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, and more than 250,000 villagers remain unable to return to their homes.

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. Over the past year, 22 cases involving 38 civilians have been tried by military courts on charges related to the freedom of expression. Those held for state security court (SSC) offenses, which include political violence, narcotics, organized crime, and some nonviolent political offenses, can legally be detained for up to four days without access to family or lawyers. Detentions of up to ten days continue to be permitted in the southeast. Two representatives of HADEP, Serdar Tanis and Ebubekir Deniz, remain missing following their detention at a police station in January 2001. The revised Article 38 of the constitution limits the death penalty to cases of terrorist crimes and to times of war. Although death sentences continue to be imposed, a de facto moratorium on carrying them out has been maintained since 1984.

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. In December 2000, security forces stormed more than 20 prisons in an effort to end a hunger strike by inmates protesting plans to move them from large dormitory-based prisons to newly constructed "F-type" prisons, in which prisoners are housed in smaller cells in relative isolation. At least 32 people, including two soldiers, were killed in the unrest, which lasted four days in some areas. Sustained hunger strikes by prisoners and their relatives over the new prison format have led to the deaths of 45 people thus far, while many others have suffered permanent brain damage. In July 2001, Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk announced that the controversial "F-type" prisons would no longer be commissioned.

Freedom of expression in Turkey is limited by the criminal code, which forbids insulting state officials and incitement to racial or ethnic hatred, and by the Anti-Terror Law, which prohibits separatist propaganda. In December 2000 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." The military, Kurds, and political Islam are highly sensitive subjects and frequently earn journalists criminal penalties, harassment, detention, or imprisonment. Between January and November 2001, some 80 journalists had been imprisoned for political activities or for allegedly infringing various laws, according to the European Commission's annual report. Some estimates place the total number of people imprisoned in connection with freedom of expression issues at around 9,000. The Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) temporarily suspended a number of independent broadcasters, and in August banned the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle on the grounds that they "threatened national security," according to Human Rights Watch. One of the constitutional amendments passed in October allows broadcasts to be made in Kurdish. However, media outlets that attempted to publish or broadcast in Kurdish were suppressed by authorities in November. In a positive development, President Sezer vetoed new legislation in mid-June aimed at increasing government vetting of broadcasting, claiming that it would threaten media freedom.

Authorities may restrict freedom of association and assembly on the grounds of maintaining public order, although official authorization will no longer be required for those wishing to stage public rallies. Pro-Kurdish political parties and nongovernmental organizations face severe harassment and restrictions on their activities, particularly in the southeast. In September 2001, police raided the Turkish Human Rights Foundation branch in Diyarbakir and seized computers and confidential medical files concerning the victims of torture. Human rights groups that attempted to document the hunger strikes as well as provide support to the prisoners faced persecution throughout the year. Members of the Human Rights Association were beaten and detained, five of their branches were shut down, and 12 members were charged under the Anti-Terror Law in March. The pro-Kurdish political party HADEP frequently faces difficulties from the authorities.

Islamists continued to face official harassment. According to Human Rights Watch, the ban on women's wearing of the headscarf was "applied with increasing severity against students and civil servants." Teachers and doctors were dismissed for wearing the headscarf on duty, and new regulations prohibited students from taking the June university examinations while wearing a headscarf. A Turkish court in February 2000 had upheld a 1999 decision to strip Merve Kavakci, a Virtue Party Member of Parliament, of her Turkish citizenship because she attempted to take her oath of office while wearing a traditional headscarf. The Virtue Party itself was outlawed in June 2001 by the constitutional court, although the prime minister expressed regret at the decision.

Roughly 99 percent of Turks are Sunni Muslim. Religious freedom is restricted by limits on worship at designated sites, constraints on building houses of worship for minority religions, and government crackdowns on political Islam. A 1998 law placed all mosques under government administration, required official authorization for the construction of mosques, and forbade the wearing of uniforms and masks (including headscarves) by demonstrators. Christian churches continue to face difficulties, particularly with regard to both ownership of property and their legal status. However, the European Commission reported that there have been some signs of "increased tolerance towards certain non-Muslim religious communities."

Women's legal rights received a boost in November 2001 with the passage of a new law that recognizes men and women as equals and accords women equal property rights in the event of a 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. Although the justice ministry banned the practice of "virginity examinations" in 1999, the health minister issued a circular in July 2001 that provides for mandatory exams for female medical students and the expulsion of those proven to be sexually active. The issue of domestic violence against women, as well as legislation that allows for the application of reduced sentences to the perpetrators of such crimes, remains an area of concern.

With the exception of public servants and workers engaged in the protection of life or property, workers may form unions, bargain collectively, and strike. The exception category includes workers in the mining and petroleum industries, sanitation, defense, law enforcement, and education. Tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs in sectors ranging from banking to automobile manufacturing since the onset of the economic crisis in February 2001.