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Prospects for Change in Turkey

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

107th Congress, Second Session

Mr. Speaker, I wish to extend my congratulations to the people of Turkey for their elections held on November 3. Witnessing the peaceful change of government is a change that is significant for both Turkey’s citizens and for their neighborhood. Many of Turkey’s neighbors need to see that such a transfer of power is possible, for the people of these countries have for too long suffered under the illusion that they must live with their repressive regimes that maintain power through undemocratic means.

 

It is also important to keep in mind that the Turks, seen by some as a model for the countries of Central Asia, are not new kids on the block–former President Demirel was an original signer of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. As Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), I have followed closely the developments in Turkey . With a particularly keen interest in the protection of human rights which has such an impact on the lives of individual men, women and children, I continue to be concerned about the ongoing use of torture, violations of religious freedom and threats to civil society.

 

Through the ballot box, the Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, received 34.3 percent of the vote, giving them a clear majority of 363 seats in the 550-seat Turkish Grand National Assembly. This entitles the AKP, led by former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to govern without sharing political power. He will not be without challenges to his authority though.

 

On November 8, the anniversary of the death of the Turkish reformer Kemal Ataturk, General Hilmi, Ozkok issued a statement vowing “to protect the republic against all types of threats, especially fundamentalism and separatist activities,” reiterating strongly the military’s view of itself as the historical guarantor of Turkey’s secular system. Mr. Speaker, while the transition appears peaceful, it is not without its strains and stresses, even with the potential of the military stepping in like it has done repeatedly in the past. We can only hope that is not the outcome of this transition.

 

As an original participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey has accepted a broad range of human rights obligations. As head of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I have worked with my parliamentary colleagues from Turkey to encourage protection for these commitments. With a new government not obligated to continue the ways of the old, there is a welcome opportunity for such initiatives to be undertaken.

 

There are a few specific matters that I urge the incoming government to address without delay. Four Kurdish members of the Grand National Assembly have been in prison since March 1994. I call upon the new government to free Layla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan, and Selim Sadak and remove the trumped-up charges from their records. They were convicted for, among other things, speaking their mother tongue in and out of the parliament building. As Mr. Erdogan himself has said, such convictions should not stand.

 

Also, past efforts to return the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kurds to their homes in southeastern Turkey have proven ineffectual. The government should take concrete steps to ensure that refugees are allowed to return to their own homes in safety and dignity, which may well require the clearing of land mines and repairing of villages.

 

Mr. Speaker, without reciting the lengthy list of Turkey’s human rights violations, including the use of torture, it is fair to say that Turkey’s record of implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments remains poor. While progress has been made, the authority of police officials must be checked by the rule of law. All claims of torture must be seriously investigated, no matter where the investigation leads. It is important that anyone who commits torture–especially police, the security forces or other agents of the state–must be taken to court and tried for high crimes. The Forensic Medical Association should be allowed to carry out its professional responsibilities and act without fear in its attempts to document torture. Victims of torture should be paid due recompense by the state.

 

I am very concerned about the continuing difficulty no-governmental organizations face throughout Turkey, particularly the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. The Human Rights Foundation exists in an uncertain environment, with arbitrary shutdowns and having its officials harassed, intimidated or arrested. Property has been seized and not returned.

 

Religious freedom in Turkey, whether for Muslims or other religious communities, had suffered from heavy-handed government involvement and control. The government allows Turkish Muslims to only attend state-approved mosques, listen to state-funded Imams, and receive religious education from state-funded schools. The Directorate of Religious Affairs, which regulates all of Turkey’s 75,000 mosques and employs Imams, has been criticized for only promoting Sunni branch of Islam. I would encourage the new government to bring to a close its regulation of all religious institutions.

 

The wearing of headscarves has also been regarded as quite controversial since it is seen as a religious totem in a secular state. Women who choose this expression of religious conviction are denied the ability to attend state-run universities and work in public building, including schools and hospitals. The public sharing of religious belief in Turkey with the intent to persuade the listener to another point of view is severely curbed for both Muslims and Christians. A number of evangelical Protestant groups throughout Turkey have reported being targeted because of their religious free speech, which contradicts OSCE commitments on religious liberty and freedom of expression.

 

Turkey’s Office of Foundations has contributed its own difficulties for faith communities, as it has closed and seized properties of “official” minority religious groups and unrecognized faith communities. Several religious groups, most notably the Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches report difficulties, particularly on the local level, in repairing and maintaining existing buildings or purchasing new buildings. The continued closure of the Orthodox seminary on Halki Island remains a concern.

 

Furthermore, religious groups not considered “official minorities” under the Lausanne Treaty are provided no legal route to purchase or rent buildings to meet, and are thereby forced to hold meetings in private apartments. In response, provincial governorships, after receiving a letter from the Ministry of Internal Affairs last year, have initiated efforts to close these meeting places, leaving the smaller Protestant communities without any options. The lack of official recognition is an insurmountable hurdle for minority religious groups wishing to practice their faith as a community.

 

Turkey is at a critical crossroads. I am hopeful that the new government will take this opportunity to move forward, and craft policies which are consistent with OSCE commitments and protective of all peoples living in Turkey.

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