Press Freedom in Turkey with Orhan Kemal Cengiz

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Turkish human rights lawyer and journalist, addresses the 8th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy –  see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On press freedom in Turkey:

“Then they started to sue journalists who said that Erdogan is a dicator, or Erdogan is an autocrat […] Now they press charges if you say Erdogan is manipulating the state or Erdogan is not democratic – even these kinds of statements are enough to get you sued”

On the experience of the Kurds under Erdogan:

“They started to impose curfews in the Kurdish cities. During these curfews, Kurdish citizens of Turkey are not allowed to go out. They’re not allowed to go and buy a loaf of bread, they are not allowed to take their loved ones to hospital.”

Full Remarks

Hello, my name is Orhan Kemal Cengiz. I am a human rights lawyer and a columnist. I’m writing columns for a couple of newspapers. I’m waiting for a photo to appear on this screen actually. Anyway, I guess they will yes. This is Mr. Tahir Elçi, he is the president of Diyarbakir Bar Association, which is the biggest city in the Kurdistan Region of Turkey. He is a giant in the human rights field, in the human rights movement in Turkey. He was the voice of voiceless, he was the advocate of missing people, the people who were forced disappearances, etc, etc, and he is a very close friend of mine.  

Unfortunately, he himself was killed on 28 November 2015. I would like to dedicate my speech to him and to his memory, to his legacy. I would like to come to the circumstances in which he was subjected, he turned into a kind of, he was demonized and he in a way, he was condemned to death and he finally was killed. 

I will come to these circumstances but first of all, I would like to start with our story, how I met Tahir and then what happened, what kind of things we did together because I believe this is also a story of Turkey’s human rights situation and the phases Turkey came through. I met with Tahir in 1997. We were following some cases before the European Court of Human Rights. Actually, I was helping him. I was working for an NGO which then helped Kurdish lawyers who brought cases before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of Kurdish villagers whose villages were burned down, the Kurds who were subjected to extrajudicial killings and so on. In the 90s the situation of Kurds was terrible, it was unbelievable and we were together following a case which is called “Uskhan and Others.” I would like to mention a little about this case. 

In the wintertime, villagers were taken into custody in ? village and they first were forced to walk seven kilometers in the snow and then they were put in a construction building by the ? who took them into custody but this construction had no window or no door. At the end, some 15 days later, they got gangrene: they lost their feet and they lost their legs. They even came to the European Court of Human Rights hearing like this. I can’t find the correct word right now. 

I met with Tahir during this case and our friendship developed over the years. In 2007 he came to rescue me. I was following a case of three missionaries who were killed by slitting their throats because at that time, I mean in the 90s, the military determined that the Kurds were the enemy. In 2000 the Christians, religious minorities were the enemy and their last victims were these three missionaries who were killed. As soon as I started to follow their case I started to receive death threats, all sorts of death threats, and Tahir Elçi was one of the first lawyers who ran to help me. 

I’m telling this story to show you that Turkey’s past was also very bad. So, knowing this past, many liberals and human rights defenders like myself and like my friends, we supported the pro-Islamist government AKP when they came to power in 2002. We believed that they will defeat the military guardianship in Turkey, we believed that they would bring democracy to Turkey. And for a while, this was true actually. There was a process during which power was disintegrating in Turkey, freedom of expression was widening, etc. Our government was trying to approach the European Union and we were happy, we were hopeful for let’s say four or five years. Then the ruling party and especially President Erdogan started to gather all power in his hands and he started to turn everything to their back positions. I mean he started to press, he started to exert tremendous pressure over media, over freedom of expression. He started to change the ownership of media outlets, he started to get journalists fired, he started to sue the journalists. And these so-called liberal cases started from saying for example “you are a corrupt guy” or “you are involved in corruption.” If someone writes something like this about Erdogan they started to sue them. 

Then came another stage in which they started to sue journalists who said Erdogan is a dictator or Erdogan is an autocrat. And now we came to a point where the prosecutors press charges if you say Erdogan is manipulating the political system, Erdogan is not a democrat or something. Even these kinds of statements are enough in Turkey right now to be sued by the president and then the president’s lawyers and then the prosecutors. 

And the other issue: for a while, we had hopes for the Kurdish peace process which was started by Erdogan himself because back then he believed a peace process was working in his favor. Then he decided it was not working in his favor but he needed the votes of the nationalists. So then we saw, we returned to full-scale war between the government forces and the PKK and we witnessed that Turkey almost turned into the 90s. They started to impose curfews in the Kurdish cities, not in this time villages like it happened in the 90s. They started to impose curfews. During these curfews Kurdish citizens of Turkey are not allowed to go out, are not allowed to buy even a bread, a loaf of bread, they cannot take their wounded people to hospitals. 

Snipers killed so many civilians but if you ask the government, they are carefully separating terrorists from civilians, which is not true. And then in terms of free debate about the Kurdish question, we come to this point again and we are coming to my friend’s story again. 

Tahir Elçi appeared on a television channel one or two months ago before he was killed. During the hot debate, he said something like this: “PKK is not a terrorist organization.” Actually, he also said PKK is using terrorist methods but if you say PKK is a terrorist organization, you cannot understand what is going on on the ground because they have a very big support etcetera, etcetera. Tahir Elçi and his bar association were trying to do what human rights defenders should always do. They criticized both the state security forces and the PKK for human rights violations they’ve been carrying out. But during this television program, he said something like this because he was trying to force the government and the PKK to come back to the peace table. And then unfortunately this one sentence was taken out of its context and it was in all government-supported media and he was presented as a kind of person who’s defending violence, who is defending terrorism etc, etc. And Tahir started to receive thousands and thousands of death threats and finally on the 28th of November he was giving a press conference before a historical monument and he was inviting both parties to come back to the peace process. Meanwhile, two PKK militants came into the street and there were police officers firing at these PKK militants but then only one person died in this street and it was Tahir Elçi unfortunately. 

I believe we don’t know the exact circumstances because we couldn’t reach all cameras, all shootings of the event but in the best scenario, I believe he was killed by one of the police officers who were under the influence of this government-supported media which demonized hierarchy. This is the best scenario. The worst scenario: everything was a set up to kill him and to silence him and to give a message to all nationalists that the government would not tolerate anyone who makes PKK propaganda or something. 

Finally, I would like to say a few words about European reaction to what’s going on in Turkey. I mean in Turkey there is no doubt we have an authoritarian government and its authoritarian tendencies, unfortunately, have been stronger and stronger every passing day. A few weeks ago a conversation leaked to the press and this conversation was between President Erdogan and some authorities from the European Union. And it was a shameful, shameful conversation. We witnessed in these conversations the person from the European Union saying to Erdogan that they were delaying the European Commission because Erdogan was doing a lot to stop the refugees from coming from Turkey to come to European Union. European Union or any European country should never sacrifice human rights for the sake of stopping refugees at the borders of Turkey and because we desperately need criticism, we desperately need decisions, reports, announcements from European institutions, from European countries, and no one should stop doing this for the sake of stopping refugees at the borders of Turkey. This is the end of my speech. I would like to show you a few minutes from the funeral of Tahir Elçi at the end of my speech. Tens of thousands of people paid their tribute to him during his funeral and I bought in front of his memory here. Thank you very much. 

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