Turkey | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Turkey's civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to the passage of another round of major reforms, including a complete overhaul of the penal code, greater civilian control of the military, the initiation of broadcasts in minority languages, and a decrease in the severest forms of torture.


Turkey continued to pass monumental reforms in 2004 in preparation for European Union (EU) membership. May constitutional reforms improved gender equality and civilian oversight of the military, and September saw the first overhaul of the Turkish penal code in its 78-year history. A positive report from the EU Commission in October paved the way for a long-awaited date for the start of negotiations, expected to be set in December 2004.

Turkey emerged as a republic out of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Its founder and the author of its guiding principles was Kemal Mustafa Ataturk ("Father of the Turks"), who declared that Muslim Turkey would be a secular state. Ataturk sought to modernize the country through measures such as the pursuit of Western learning, use of the Roman alphabet instead of Arabic script for writing Turkish, and abolishment of the Muslim caliphate.

Turkey stayed out of most of World War II, but joined the Allies in February 1945. After the war, the republic joined NATO in 1952 to guarantee its protection from the Soviet Union. However, modern Turkish political history has been unstable, and the army has overthrown civilian governments in three coups. The army, which sees itself as a bulwark against both Islamism and Kurdish separatism, has traditionally expressed opinions on the functioning of government that are rarely ignored.

The role of political Islam has been one of the defining questions of Turkish politics in the 1990s and early twenty-first century. In 1995, an Islamist party, Welfare, won the general election but failed to obtain a majority. Initially, two other parties formed a majority coalition without it, but the breakup of that coalition in 1996 led the Democratic Party to form a coalition with Welfare. The following year the army, ever protective of Turkey's secular roots, forced the coalition to resign. Welfare prime minister Necmettin Erbakan was replaced by a member of the Motherland Party. The Welfare party was banned in 1998 on the grounds that it was seeking to introduce Islamic rule.

The governments that followed failed to stabilize a shaky economy, which culminated in an economic crisis in 2001. In November 2002, the Justice and Development (AK) Party, whose roots lay in the then-disbanded Welfare, won a sweeping majority in the general election by promising to end governmental corruption and put the country on a firm path toward EU membership. The AK sought to distance itself from political Islamism, but its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, had previously been banned from politics after he was convicted of crimes against secularism for reading a poem seeming to incite religious intolerance. Abdullah Gul served as prime minister until parliament changed the constitution to allow Erdogan to replace him in March 2003.

Erdogan has used his party's large parliamentary majority to push through successive wide-reaching reforms that are crucial to Turkey's application to join the EU. In 2004, the government passed further constitutional reforms and a thorough overhaul of the penal code. In October, Turkey's persistence paid off in a report from the European Commission, which recommended that in December 2004 the EU give Turkey a date to begin negotiations. However, the report cited continued shortcomings, including corruption, inequities in the status of women, and problems with the role of the military, and said that the EU should monitor Turkey to ensure progress. Turkey is not expected to join the EU for at least a decade.

Kurdish separatists fought a 15-year guerrilla war against Turkish forces in the southeast of the country that ended after the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. The legacy of this conflict, in which more than 35,000 people were killed, remains in the form of discrimination and lingering tensions. In June, the Kurdish separatist PKK, now renamed Kongra-Gel, ended its five-year ceasefire with the government because, it claimed, not enough had been done to meet its demands. Clashes with government troops increased over the summer, with deaths on both sides. The EU added Kongra-Gel to its list of terrorist organizations in April 2004.

Turkey has also faced increasing violence from non-Kurdish terrorism. Bombs went off in Ankara and Istanbul ahead of visits by British prime minister Tony Blair in May and U.S. president George W. Bush in June, as well as at a Masonic lodge in March.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Turkish citizens can change their government democratically. The 1982 constitution provides for a 550-member parliament, the Grand National Assembly, which is elected to five-year terms. The prime minister is the head of government, but the assembly chooses a mostly symbolic president as head of state - currently Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Democratic choice has been undercut by the army in the past, the last time being in a "soft coup" that forced the government of the religious Welfare party out of office in 1997. Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the AK became prime minister in March 2003. The November 2002 elections were widely judged as free and fair.

In January 2003, new legal amendments loosened restrictions on party names and candidates and circumscribed the reasons for closure of a political party. However, a party can still be shut down if its program is not in agreement with the constitution, and the word "agreement" can be widely interpreted. In addition, a party must win at least 10 percent of the votes cast nationwide to have representation in parliament. As a result, although a large number and variety of parties participated in active campaigning in 2002, only two parties, AK and the Republican People's Party (CHP), won seats. Nevertheless, both of these parties had been in the opposition, thus attesting to the ability of the electorate to precipitate change.

Today, AK holds an overwhelming 367 parliamentary seats. The opposition has been in disarray since the 2002 elections, as confirmed by the tremendous victory of AK in March 2004 local elections. The AK Party appears to have abandoned its former Islamist aspirations. Although the party has supported some loosening of restrictions on religious activity, it has not made any attempt to undermine Turkey's secular underpinnings, but instead has steadfastly pursued a start to EU negotiations.

The National Security Council, once dominated by the military, had its policy-setting role downgraded to a purely advisory one in 2003. A civilian was chosen to head the council for the first time in August 2004, and constitutional reforms made military expenditures more accountable to parliament. Significantly, the military did not intervene when Erdogan was chosen prime minister, despite its known reservations. Nevertheless, the opinions of the top generals continue to generate press attention, and the possibility of military intervention in controversial policy making remains.

Turkey struggles with corruption in government and in daily life. The AK Party - "ak" means "pure" in Turkish - came to power amid promises to clean up governmental corruption, and since December 2003 Turkey has signed the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), the UN Convention against Corruption, and the European Convention on the Fight against Corruption. However, enforcement is lacking, and a culture of tolerance of corruption pervades among the general population. Transparency has improved through EU reforms, but here too implementation lags. Turkey was ranked 77 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

While Turkey's constitution establishes freedom of the media and recent reforms have increased this freedom, some major impediments remain. Fines, arrests, and imprisonment are regularly allotted to media and journalists who, for example, criticize the military or portray the Kurds in too positive of a light. Turkey's Supreme Council of Radio and Television (RTUK) regularly sanctions broadcasters if they are not in compliance with a broadly defined set of principles. Furthermore, media organizations have an incentive to produce news of a certain political bent because they are nearly all owned by giant holding companies with interests in other sectors. Self-censorship therefore occurs. On the other hand, new laws were instituted allowing broadcasts for the first time in minority languages, and the first such broadcasts took place in June 2004. In addition, as of June 2004, a member of the military will no longer be part of the RTUK. The government does not restrict the Internet beyond the same censorship policies that apply to other media.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, and much of its population is very devout. Three non-Muslim groups - Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians, and Jews - are officially recognized. Other groups lack legal status, and their activities are subject to legal challenges. While the constitution protects freedom of religion, the Turkish republic was set up on the premise of secularism in which state and religious affairs are separated. In practice, this has meant considerable government control of religion. Women wearing headscarves are not allowed in public universities and government offices, and observant men are dismissed from the military. There are periodic protests against the headscarf ban, although the European Court of Human Rights ruled in June 2004 that the ban is legal and AK dropped its attempt to introduce an easing of the ban in the 2004 penal code reforms. A much more vocal controversy erupted in spring 2004 over an AK proposal to allow graduates of vocational schools - including Islamic imam-hatip schools - to enroll in state universities. After the president vetoed the bill, AK allowed the matter to drop. The government does not otherwise restrict academic freedom, although self-censorship on sensitive topics like the role of Islam and the Kurdish problem are common.

The constitution protects freedom of association, but broad language leaves room for restrictions despite some tightening through recent reforms. Some local officials use bureaucracy to prevent registration of demonstrations, and police regularly disperse peaceful public gatherings, often using excessive force. Nevertheless, civil society plays an increasing role in Turkish politics. Regulation of the activities and membership of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has relaxed with recent reforms, although restrictions remain, particularly for pro-Kurdish groups. Employees have the right to join trade unions and cannot be discriminated against for doing so, but public employees do not have the right to strike.

The Turkish constitution establishes an independent judiciary, but the government can influence judges through its control of appointments, promotions, and financing. Recent reforms give all detainees the right to see a lawyer immediately, free of charge, although the law is not enforced in all instances, particularly in the southeast. The death penalty was fully abolished in 2004, as were State Security Courts, where many human rights abuses occurred. In September, parliament overhauled the penal code, making such fundamental changes as institutionalizing the concept that punishments should be in proportion to the crimes committed; there are accusations that residual ambiguities still allow judges to interpret some laws at will.

Leyla Zana and three other Kurdish former members of parliament, who were convicted of belonging to the PKK in 1994 in what was widely condemned as an unfair trial, were released in June pending an appeal. The four were considered by many to have been political prisoners, and the trial is considered symbolic both of Turkey's flawed judicial system and of the push for Kurdish rights. Their lawyers consider it unlikely that they will return to prison because of the amount of time they have already served.

The Erdogan government has a "zero-tolerance" policy concerning torture, backed up by new laws and training to improve implementation. However, while torture is widely reported as having decreased, particularly in its harshest forms, most rights groups agree that it still occurs and perpetrators are rarely punished. Prison conditions can be harsh, including measures such as solitary confinement and medical neglect. Most controversial are the F-type prisons, which are criticized for isolation of prisoners. An especially contentious imprisonment is that of Abdullah Ocalan, former leader of the Kurdish guerilla movement, who is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement on an island off the Turkish coast; Ocalan allegedly has not had adequate access to his lawyer and to visitors.

Turkey claims that all Turkish citizens are treated equally, but its unwillingness to recognize Kurdish differences results in de facto unequal treatment under the law. Because minorities are defined solely by religion, Kurds are denied recognition, and a traditional emphasis on Turkishness over multiculturalism has left the Kurds facing restrictions on their language, culture, and freedom of expression. The situation has improved with the EU harmonization reforms, but official and informal discrimination remain.

Property rights are generally respected in Turkey. The most significant problem is the tens of thousands of Kurds who were driven from their homes by government forces during the conflict in the southeast. The government has initiated a project to compensate these people and return them to their villages. However, local paramilitary "village guards" have allegedly used intimidation and violence to prevent some from returning to their homes.

Constitutional amendments in the spring of 2004 included a provision granting women full equality before the law, building on earlier changes in the civil and penal codes. However, much of Turkey is socially conservative, and women have far lower status than men in practice. UNICEF has determined that in some rural provinces more than half of all girls under age 15 do not attend school. Women are also discriminated against in employment. "Honor crimes," including killings, in which family members punish women who "dishonor" the family by becoming pregnant out of wedlock or being raped, are a problem among traditional Muslim families. In February, the government instructed prayer leaders to state that honor killings are a sin against God, and the 2004 revisions to the penal code included an end to sentence reductions for these crimes. AK leaders attempted to include a law criminalizing adultery in the penal code amendments, which was ultimately excluded. Human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution is a problem in Turkey, although the government has been taking many steps to improve the situation.