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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Turkey

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Turkey, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 18 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

As detailed in a report from MRG in December 2007, Turkish attitudes and laws on minorities have progressed considerably over the past decade, but many reforms lie ahead if the country's legal framework and practice are to reach international standards. Minority groups including Alevis, Armenians, Assyrians, Caferis, Caucasians, Kurds, Jews, Laz, Roma, Rum (Greek Orthodox) Christians, and Yezidis still confront systematic repression in today's Turkey. Officially, the government still only recognizes Armenians, Jews and Rum Christians as minorities, but, as used in Turkey, this term denotes clear second-class status. All other groups have faced intense pressure to assimilate.

The January 2007 murder of Armenian rights campaigner and writer Hrant Dink offered a stark reminder of Turkey's ongoing failure to protect the rights of individuals from minority communities. Dink had been convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment in 2005 under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish penal code for 'denigrating Turkish identity'. This provision often has been used to suppress any discussion or acknowledgement of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Dink's offence was writing about Turkish-Armenian relations. Dink's assassin, a 17-year-old with 18 alleged accomplices, told police that Dink 'had insulted Turkishness'. Such concepts are not only enshrined in law; schoolchildren continue to learn negative stereotypes of Armenians and other minorities from their textbooks. At a hearing in October, the gunman's family accused the authorities of collusion in the killing; one co-defendant was a police informant who had notified the authorities of the plot, and Turkish media broadcast a recorded phone call providing further indication that police knew of the plan in advance.

As a large, unrecognized minority, Kurds continue to face systematic marginalization. Around 30,000 people have been killed in fighting between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since 1984, and over 1 million people remain displaced in heavily Kurdish south-eastern Turkey. PKK attacks on the Turkish military from northern Iraq during 2007 raised tensions further, as Ankara massed troops in south-eastern Turkey for possible entry into Iraq.

The government continues to conflate any effort to promote Kurdish rights with support for 'PKK terrorists'. When in January 2007 the city council of the old-town section of the multi-ethnic south-eastern city of Diyarbakir agreed to provide municipal services in Arabic, Armenian, Assyriac, English and Kurdish, in addition to Turkish, the Ankara-appointed governor of the region removed the council, the old-town mayor, as well as the popular Kurdish mayor of the city. In July, prosecutors introduced charges against the two mayors and 17 council members on charges of 'abuse of office', and they may be jailed for up to three years if convicted. In February, the president and 12 members of a pro-Kurdish party received 6–12 month sentences for holding their party congress in the Kurdish language. On the basis of a vague 2006 anti-terror law, another Kurdish leader was convicted and sentenced in August for a speech he gave in March. Ahead of elections in 2007, government officials harassed one pro-Kurdish party's leaders through arrests, searches, seizures and prosecutions. Government harassment also targeted Kurdish media outlets.

Other ethnic minorities also continue to be targeted. In Afyon province in April, a mob attacked a Roma family and burned down several Roma houses. The police made no arrests. Religious intolerance remains a major shortcoming, too. In an attack in April on a publishing company that prints Bibles, extremists slit the throats of three Protestants. In May, the 2007 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized restrictions on non-Muslim religious groups that prevent them from owning property or training clergy.

Two professors, Baskin Oran and Ibrahim Kaboglu, who drafted a report on minority rights on behalf of a human rights advisory committee affiliated with the prime minister's office in 2004, remain in legal jeopardy. The draft report, which was leaked to the press but never published, called for a far-reaching overhaul of the country's constitution and statutes in order to achieve international standards. According to Agence France Presse, it described as 'paranoia' the notion that rights for Kurds and other groups would lead to the break-up of the state. Charges of sedition against Oran and Kaboglu were dismissed on free speech grounds by a court in 2006 but reinstated by an appellate court in September 2007. In early 2007 the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul – a practising Muslim – for the largely ceremonial post of president in early 2007, sparking outrage among nationalists and the military. Incumbent President Ahmet Necdet Sezer warned that Turkey's secularism was under threat, and told military officers they had a duty to protect the regime from a move toward radical Islam. A statement on the army website shortly thereafter warned that the army would defend the secular system, which many Turks interpreted as a threatened coup. Army Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit also openly criticized the European Union (EU) and MRG for considering such groups as Assyrians and Roma as 'minorities'. Nationalists launched mass demonstrations throughout the spring, with hundreds of thousands rallying in Turkey's largest cities against political Islam. However, early elections in July, spurred by the crisis, resulted in an absolute majority of parliamentary seats for Prime Minister Erdogan's AKP. For the first time since 1991, Kurds were elected to parliament. Although receiving over half of the vote from the south-east in previous elections, their parties had failed to clear an onerous 10 per cent hurdle that has worked against all minority groups. This time Kurds ran as independent candidates, and 22 were elected, including one Kurdish activist elected from prison who was immediately released due to her newly acquired parliamentary immunity. Following previous criticism that no non-Muslims were represented in parliament, the AKP included four Alevis on their successful list. Despite a renewed warning from General Buyukanit in August that the military would protect Turkey's secularism from 'centres of evil', the new parliament proceeded to elect reformist foreign minister Abdullah Gul as Turkey's new president.

Turkish liberalism is creating new challenges for old-order nationalists and military-backed secularists. In response to the Dink murder in January nearly 200,000 protesters took to the streets of Istanbul carrying signs reading: 'We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians.' New minority organizations are springing up and fighting for their groups' rights in domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights. Liberal Turks shifted support away from secular parties and toward the moderate Muslim AKP party in the July elections. One academic liberal Turk who recently joined the AKP told the New York Times ahead of the elections, 'In 50 years, people will write that this was the time Turkey started to come to terms with its own people.'

The EU accession process has been a major catalyst for human rights reforms. In July, Amnesty International, in reporting on the continued practice of torture in Turkey despite the government's 'zero tolerance' policy, noted that the situation had improved following legal reforms prompted by the EU accession process. In its 2007 report on Turkey, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom stated that everyone interviewed for the report, from all religious communities in Turkey, 'stressed EU membership as the most promising means to advance religious freedom and other human rights protections and to drive democracy forward in Turkey.' Within the EU, however, some governments (notably France) and political parties (notably Germany's Christian Democratic Union) oppose Turkey's eventual accession on the basis of religion, which could undercut the impetus for further reform.

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