Turkey moves to expand government control over civil society groups

Turkey has passed a law that expands government control over civil society groups, a move that rights campaigners say may lead to the closure of non-governmental organisations and throttle what dissent remains in the country.

Legislation passed by parliament on Sunday permits the interior
ministry to appoint members at NGOs and halt their activities under
vague terrorism charges. It also introduces onerous government
inspections of civil society groups and limits online fundraising activities.

“This law provides the interior minister with the authority to shut
down any group whenever he wants without a chance for appeal. It
raises the possibility that all rights groups may be abolished in
Turkey,” said Tarik Beyhan, a director for Amnesty International in Turkey.

Taner Kilic, Amnesty Turkey’s former chairman, was in July sentenced to more than six years in prison on charges that he belonged to a terror group. He is free pending appeal.

More than 500,000 people in Turkey have faced legal proceedings in connection with an abortive coup in 2016, and thousands of journalists, lawyers, opposition politicians and others remain in prison on terrorism charges. Hundreds of NGOs were closed during emergency rule after the coup attempt.

Yilmaz Tunc, a ruling party lawmaker who heads parliament’s judiciary
committee, was quoted as saying during the debate that changes to regulations on fundraising and associations were required to adhere with international counter-terrorism rules and does not violate freedom of association.

The NGO regulations were tacked on to legislation that the government said was needed to comply with a UN resolution on preventing the financing of weapons of mass destruction. Mr Beyhan said that “additional provisions were added secretly with the ulterior motive of further limiting the freedom of civil society to organise and assemble”.

He continued: “Human rights groups are frequently exposed to terrorism accusations [and] this law relies on ambiguous definitions of terrorism to render associations dysfunctional.”

Erol Onderoglu of rights group Reporters Without Borders at a press conference in 2019 condemns attacks on civil society groups in Turkey after the indictment of Osman Kavala © Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty

Osman Kavala, Turkey’s most prominent civil society figure, has been in prison since 2017 without conviction on accusations he plotted against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The government has ignored a European Court of Human Rights order to free Mr Kavala.

Mr Erdogan last week accused the Strasbourg-based court of “hypocrisy” after it ordered his government to release Selahattin Demirtas, former leader of Turkey’s second-biggest opposition party, who was jailed on terrorism charges stemming from his political speeches.

Turkey’s refusal to implement ECHR rulings risks exacerbating tensions with the EU, which has threatened Ankara with sanctions over its aggressive foreign policy.

Mr Erdogan has in recent weeks promised an “action plan” to protect
rights, viewed as part of an effort to repair relations with its
traditional western partners and improve the investment climate as the
economy struggles during the coronavirus pandemic.

The oversight rules for NGOs apply to a myriad of civil society groups, from rights advocates to sports associations to religious groups.

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