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Turkey: Stop mis-using the law to detain human rights defenders, urges UN expert

GENEVA (9 June 2021) – A UN expert today urged Turkey to release imprisoned human rights defenders and to stop using vague terrorism charges to turn people who stand up for human rights into criminals.

“I am greatly concerned that anti-terrorism laws are being used extensively to silence Turkish human rights defenders and disrupt their legitimate work defending human rights,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code and Article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law relating to leaders and members of armed organisations are being used to convict human rights defenders and sentence them to lengthy prison sentences, Lawlor said.

“In Turkey, human rights lawyers are particularly targeted for their work representing human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations, victims of police violence and torture, and many people who simply express dissenting opinions,” she said.

“Turkey is violating some of the pillars of international human rights law – freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to lawfully practice one’s own profession – by repeatedly depriving human rights defenders and lawyers of their freedom.”

The case of Osman Kavala, a businessman and human rights defender, is emblematic of a pattern of judicial harassment against human rights defenders in Turkey, she said.

In February 2020, he was acquitted, along with eight others, of participating in the 2013 Istanbul Gezi Park protests that kicked off a wave of demonstrations. Just hours after a judge ruled there was “not enough concrete evidence” against Kavala, he was arrested again and charged in a new case which is ongoing.

Lawlor said she has told the Turkish Government of her concerns for 14 human rights defenders serving prison sentences of 10 years or more, including nine lawyers and members of the Progressive Lawyers' Association (Çağdaş Hukukçular Derneği - ÇHD). One of them, Ebru Timtik, died in custody in August 2020 while on hunger strike to demand fair trials for her and her colleagues. Lawlor said she continues to discuss these cases with the Turkish authorities.

She also expressed concern for the physical and mental health of human rights defenders who remain in high-security prisons. These include detained human rights defenders Aytaç Ünsal and Fevzi Kayacan, who are not getting the critical medical care they need. Woman human rights defender Oya Aslan has also been tortured while in detention, Lawlor said.

Several human rights defenders and civil society members are on trial for terrorism-related charges and face up to 14 years imprisonment if convicted. These include members of the NGO Human Rights Association İnsan Haklari Derneği (İHD) such as Eren Keskin, as well as civil society actors and human rights defenders Erol Önderoğlu and Şebnem Korur Fincancı.

“In all court cases – particularly those against human rights defenders – I call on Turkey to ensure impartiality of the proceedings and to respect the right to a fair and free trial,” said Lawlor.

The expert’s call has been endorsed by; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.


Ms Mary Lawlor, (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, after becoming a member of the Board of Directors 1975 and being elected its President from 1983 to 1987.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests please contact Orsolay Toth (+41 22 917 9913 / ototh@ohchr.org) or write to defenders@ohchr.org

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org) and Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org).

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts

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