Turkey: Hundreds arrested in crackdown on critics of military offensive in Syria
Hundreds of people have been detained in Turkey for commenting or reporting on Turkey’s recent military offensive in northeast Syria and are facing absurd criminal charges as the government intensifies its crackdown on critical voices, said Amnesty International in a report published today.
As the tanks rolled across the Syrian border, the government took the opportunity to launch a domestic campaign to eradicate dissenting opinions from media, social media and the streets
‘We can’t complain’ reveals how last month’s offensive – Operation Peace Spring - was accompanied by a wave of repression in Turkey which swept up anyone who deviated from the government’s official line. Journalists, social media users and protesters have been accused of “terrorism” and subjected to criminal investigation, arbitrary detention and travel bans. If prosecuted and found guilty, they could face lengthy prison sentences.
“As the tanks rolled across the Syrian border, the government took the opportunity to launch a domestic campaign to eradicate dissenting opinions from media, social media and the streets. Critical discussion on issues of Kurdish rights and politics has become even further off limits,” said Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Marie Struthers.
“Language around the military incursion was heavily policed, and hundreds of people who expressed their dissenting opinions about Turkey’s military operation were rounded up and are facing investigations under anti-terrorism laws.”
Silencing of journalists
On 10 October, a day after the offensive began, Turkey’s broadcasting regulatory body (RTÜK) warned media outlets that there would be zero tolerance of “any broadcasting that may negatively impact the morale and motivation of […] soldiers or may mislead citizens through incomplete, falsified or partial information that serves the aims of terror”.
Having my home raided and my children terrorized by 30 heavily armed, masked police officers simply for some social media posts calling for peace, shows the level of suppression of freedom of expression in Turkey
On the same day, two journalists were detained. Hakan Demir of the daily newspaper Birgün was questioned over a tweet on the paper’s official Twitter account based on an NBC report stating that “Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas.”
Meanwhile Fatih Gökhan Diler, managing editor of the Diken news website, was detained after publication of an article with the headline “SDF claim: two civilians lost their lives”. Both journalists were accused of “inciting enmity and hatred” before being released with overseas travel bans pending the outcome of criminal investigations.
Police also burst into the home of journalist and human rights defender, Nurcan Baysal, at 5am on 19 October. She told Amnesty International: “Having my home raided and my children terrorized by 30 heavily armed, masked police officers simply for some social media posts calling for peace, shows the level of suppression of freedom of expression in Turkey.”
Journalist Özlem Oral was detained on the same day and questioned over tweets criticizing ‘Operation Peace Spring’ which were posted on a Twitter account not even her own. She was released the next day with an overseas travel ban, required to regularly report at a local police station, and not to leave İstanbul where she lives.
In the first week of the offensive alone, 839 social media accounts were under investigation for “sharing criminal content”
On 27 October, lawyer and columnist Nurcan Kaya was detained at Istanbul airport for criticizing the offensive by tweeting “We know from experience how everything you call a peace operation is a massacre”. She was released after questioning the same day,but received an international travel ban.
It is not just Turkish journalists that have been targeted. On 25 October, President Erdoğan’s lawyers announced that they filed a criminal complaint against the director and editor of French magazine Le Point, following the publication of the October 24 issue which used the cover headline “Ethnic cleansing: the Erdoğan method” in its coverage of the military offensive. The lawyers claimed the cover is insulting to the president, a crime under Turkish law.
Targeting of social media users
In the first week of the offensive alone, 839 social media accounts were under investigation for “sharing criminal content” with 186 people reportedly taken into police custody and 24 remanded in pre-trial detention, according to official figures.
One social media user, who was detained and accused of “propaganda for a terrorist organization” had retweeted three tweets, one of which read: “Rojava [the autonomous Kurdish area in northern Syria] will win. No to War”. Like others, these tweets did not come remotely close to constituting evidence of an internationally recognizable crime.
He was given an overseas travel ban and required to report to a local police station twice a month. One lawyer told Amnesty International: “Using the words ‘war’, ‘occupation’, ‘Rojava’ has become a crime. The judiciary says ‘you cannot say no to war’.”
Targeting of politicians and activists
“Operation Peace Spring” has also been used by the government as a pretext to escalate its crackdown on opposition politicians and activists. Several MPs are currently subject to criminal investigations including Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who is facing a criminal probe for comments he made in the media, and a tweet which read: “Government needs to know this, this is an unjustified war and a war against the Kurds.”
According to lawyers from the Bar Association in Şanlıurfa province, at least 54 people were taken into police custody in the province by counter-terrorism officers on 9 and 10 October. Among them were members of the Kurdish-rooted leftist opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), as well as members of left-wing opposition trade unions.
Within the first week of the military offensive at least 27 people, many of whom were affiliated with HDP, were detained in Mardin province on terrorism-related charges. Detainees included the elected mayor of the town of Nusaybin. The government later replaced her with the unelected district governor.
Since the start of the military offensive, Turkey’s already entrenched atmosphere of censorship and fear has deepened
On 12 October the Saturday Mothers, relatives of victims of enforced disappearances who have been holding peaceful vigils every Saturday since 2009 to remember their loved ones, were warned by police that they would break up the vigil “if they utter the word ‘war’”. The peaceful gathering was violently broken up as soon as the statement that criticized the military operation was read out.
“Since the start of the military offensive, Turkey’s already entrenched atmosphere of censorship and fear has deepened, with detentions and trumped-up charges used to silence the few who dare to utter any challenge or criticism of ‘Operation Peace Spring’,” said Marie Struthers.
“The Turkish authorities must stop gagging opinions they don’t like and end the ongoing crackdown. All charges and prosecutions of those targeted for peaceful expression of their opposition to Turkey’s military operations should be immediately dropped.”
Syria conflict: The 'war crimes' caught in brutal phone footage
By Jiyar GolBBC Persian
3 November 2019
Turkish-backed forces fighting Kurdish militias in north-east Syria have been accused of committing war crimes, with acts of brutality surfacing on mobile phone footage.
The UN has warned that Turkey could be held responsible for the actions of its allies, while Turkey has promised to investigate.
Bearded men shout "Allahu Akbar [God is the Greatest]". One captures the scene on his smartphone and says: "We are mujahedeen [holy warriors] from Faylaq Al-Majd [Glory Corps] battalion." In the background are the corpses of Kurdish fighters.
Further away, a group of men plant their feet on a woman's bloodied body. One says she is a "whore".
The gruesome footage is much like that produced by the ultra-violent Islamic State (IS) group.
Yet the men in this video are not IS militants, but rather fighters for a rebel alliance known as the Syrian National Army, trained, equipped and paid for by a Nato member, Turkey. They are under the command of the Turkish army.
The video was filmed on 21 October in northern Syria. The woman beneath the fighters' feet is Amara Renas, a member of an all-woman unit of Kurdish fighters, the YPJ, a force that played a significant role in defeating IS in Syria.
Amara was killed in the recent Turkish assaults against Kurdish forces in Syria.
On 9 October the Turkish army and pro-Turkish Syrian rebels attacked the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), shortly after Donald Trump announced the US would pull troops out of Syria.
SDF fighters had been a highly effective and trusted ally of the US-led coalition and led the defeat of IS on the ground. The group says it also provided intelligence that led to the killing last week of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Days after Turkey's attacks, numerous videos alleged to have been filmed by pro-Turkey rebels emerged on social media. In one, an unidentified fighter shouts in Arabic: "We have come to behead you infidels and apostates!"
In another video, a masked rebel clad in black carries a terrified woman surrounded by other rebels - one films her, one shouts "pig", another says: "Take her to be beheaded."
The widely-circulated video provoked outrage on social media. A few days after it was published, Turkish state TV showed Cicek Kobane being treated in a hospital in Turkey.
"We were by the gate when a shell hit"
The captured woman is Cicek Kobane, another YPJ fighter.
US officials have said that some of the actions in these videos probably constitute war crimes.
"Many people fled because they're very concerned about these Turkish-supported Syrian opposition forces," James Jeffrey, US special envoy for Syria, told Congress.
"We'd say that Turkey-supported Syrian opposition forces who were under general Turkish command, at least in one instance did carry out war crimes."
Turkey has long been accused of taking little action against jihadists in Syria.
"I ran the ISIS [Islamic State group] campaign - 40,000 foreign fighters, jihadists from 110 countries around the world, all came into Syria to fight in that war and they all came through Turkey," Brett McGurk, former US President Special Envoy in the coalition against IS, told CNN last month.
He said he tried to persuade Turkey to seal its border against IS. "They said they couldn't do it," he said, "but the minute the Kurds took parts of the border, it's totally sealed with a wall."
US officials say they have demanded an explanation from Turkey for alleged war crimes by the rebels.
Ibrahim Kalin, the Turkish president's spokesman, said Turkey will investigate any suspected war crimes.
But many Kurdish activists have no faith in the Turkish government or army.
"There is strong evidence that over the past four decades, Turkish military and security forces have systematically committed war crimes and violated human rights in their conflict with the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for decades)," says Kamran Matin, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Sussex University.
Turning a blind eye
In the past decade, numerous disturbing images and videos allegedly filmed by the Turkish army and security forces document the killing of captured Kurdish dissidents in Turkey.
In one video published a few years ago, suspected Turkish soldiers behead dead PKK militants. In another video, two female PKK fighters with their hands tied behind their backs are seated on a mountain cliff, when what are apparently Turkish soldiers with automatic machine guns shoot them at close range and kick them over the edge.
In October 2015, a widely-shared video showed Turkish security forces dragging the body of 24-year-old actor Haci Lokman Birlik through the streets in Sirnak, a Kurdish town in south-east Turkey, with a rope around his neck. Part of the video appeared to have been filmed from inside the police vehicle. Turkish officials claimed his corpse might have been booby-trapped.
Kurdish human rights activists have accused the US and the EU of failing to condemn Turkey or take any effective punitive action.
"The EU turned a blind eye to Turkey's human rights violations, because of Turkey's Nato membership, economic ties and the fear of a backlash among millions of Turks living in European countries, Germany in particular," says Kamran Matin.
After the Syrian civil war began, a new factor "constrained European countries' reaction to Turkey's gross violation of human rights," he says - "Syrian refugees. [Turkish] President Erdogan repeatedly threatened flooding Europe with them."
This, it seems, is something European countries want to avoid, whatever the cost.
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