European Commission 2021 Turkey Report: Serious backsliding continued on human rights

European Commission published its 2021 Turkey report.

Lawyers and Human Rights Defenders

Lawyers, especially those providing legal assistance to Human Rights Defenders and civil and political activists, faced considerable obstacles in performing their work, including pressure and external interferences. Such interferences entail the refusal of admissions to the profession of lawyer for those who were dismissed by a state of emergency decree. The elections of most of the Bar Associations were prevented from taking place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, the elections of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations were not held.

Broad restrictions imposed on the activities of journalists, writers, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and critical voices continued to have a negative effect on the exercise of their freedoms.

Human rights defenders faced increasing pressure through intimidation, judicial prosecutions, violent attacks, threats, surveillance, prolonged arbitrary detention and ill-treatment. This continued to have a chilling effect on the independent civil society. Smear campaigns by some media outlets close to the government and an aggressive rhetoric by high government officials towards human rights defenders continued to create a climate of fear and narrowed the space for critical views. Furthermore, lawyers providing legal assistance to human rights defenders and civil and political activists continued to face considerable obstacles in performing their work and were themselves at risk of arrest, detention and prosecution.

The authorities undermined fair trial guarantees by targeting lawyers for their professional activities. Lawyers continued to be subject to increasing pressure, taken into custody, detained, exposed to legal harassment through investigations and criminal proceedings. Those dismissed by state of emergency decrees continued to be often barred from acting as lawyers, with a few exceptions following the July 2020 judgement of the Constitutional Court that this was a violation of their right to exercise their profession.

Human Rights

Serious backsliding continued on human rights. Broad restrictions imposed on the activities of journalists, writers, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and critical voices continued to have a negative effect on the exercise of their freedoms. Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention raised further concerns about its adherence to international human rights standards. The damage caused by the state of emergency on the fundamental rights and the related legislation adopted was not remedied.

The deterioration of human rights continued and no progress was made on last year’s recommendations. Many of the measures introduced during the state of emergency remain in force and continue to have a profound and devastating impact on people in Turkey. The legal framework includes general guarantees of respect for human and fundamental rights but the legislation and practice still need to be brought into line with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case-law. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly continued its monitoring of Turkey’s respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Broad scale restrictions imposed on the activities of journalists, writers, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and critical voices continued to have a negative effect on the exercise of their freedoms and lead to self censorship. Turkey’s continued refusal to implement ECtHR rulings, notably in the cases of Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala, further increased concerns regarding the judiciary’s adherence to the international and European standards.

Judicial System

The serious backsliding observed since 2016 continued. Concerns remained, in particular over the systemic lack of independence of the judiciary and undue pressure on judges and prosecutors. The new human rights action plan envisages certain positive measures but it does not address any of the key shortcomings related to the independence of the judiciary. In particular, no measures are envisaged to improve respect for the principle of the separation of powers or to improve the structure and the selection process of members of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, long outstanding recommendations of the Council of Europe Venice Commission and the European Commission. Despite their acquittal, none of the judges or prosecutors dismissed following the coup attempt were reinstated. The lack of objective, merit-based, uniform and pre-established criteria for recruiting and promoting judges and prosecutors remains a source of concern. The institution of criminal law judges of peace continued to raise concerns over their jurisdiction and practice.

Overall, 3 968 judges and public prosecutors were dismissed for alleged links to the Gülen movement since the attempted coup.


Legislation and its implementation, especially related to national security and anti-terrorism provisions, continued to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights and other international standards and to diverge from the case-law of the ECtHR. The dissemination of opposition voices and freedom of expression were negatively affected by the increasing pressure and restrictive measures. Criminal cases and convictions of journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, writers, opposition politicians, students and social media users continued.

The new law on preventing financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction raises concerns with regard to possible restrictions on the activities of human rights defenders and civil society. A new law adopted in December 2020 on preventing financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction risks to increase further the pressure over civil society organisations. This law was based on the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). However, there are strong concerns expressed by Turkish civil society, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and Commissioner for Human Rights as well as UN Special Rapporteurs regarding several aspects of the legislation.


Overcrowding and deteriorating prison conditions continue to be a source of deep concern. Turkey was the Council of Europe Member State with the highest overcrowding rate (127 inmates per 100 available places). The new human rights action plan includes an overall commitment to improve living conditions in prisons and address the well-being of juveniles. There are reported allegations of torture and ill-treatment in prisons.

Torture and Ill-Treatment

Credible and grave allegations of torture and ill-treatment continued to be reported. According to available reports, torture and ill-treatment still occur in detention centres, prisons and in informal places of detention as well as on the streets, mostly during demonstrations and meetings. There are reported allegations of torture and ill-treatment in prisons.

The publication of the pending 2016 report of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) was not authorised by the authorities. The last CPT visit to Turkey took place in January 2021. The Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey (HREI), which should act as the national preventive mechanism, does not meet the key requirements under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and is not yet effectively processing cases referred to it. Effective prison monitoring boards need to be set up.

The legislation, which allows for a maximum police custody period of up to 12 days, is in contravention of ECtHR case law (maximum of four days) and needs to be revised. Complaints, reports and any indications of torture or ill-treatment need to be investigated swiftly, effectively and impartially; perpetrators must be prosecuted and convicted in line with Turkey’s international obligations, in particular with the ECHR and the UNCAT.

Enforced Disappearances

Alleged cases of abductions and enforced disappearances by security or intelligence services in several provinces continue to be reported since the attempted coup with no adequate investigations carried out. The cases of at least two dozen persons allegedly abducted by state agents for many months have not yet been effectively investigated by the Turkish authorities

Transnational Repression and Abuse of INTERPOL

Turkey raised criticism on the high number of extradition requests linked to terrorism offences that were not accepted (notably by EU countries) on grounds of refugee status or citizenship granted to the person concerned. Turkey also raised concerns on the high number of red notices issued for individuals wanted for terrorism that were either denied or deleted by INTERPOL.

The Turkish authorities continued to exert pressure on authorities in the Western Balkans to locally prosecute and extradite alleged members of the Gülen movement.

Property Rights

On property rights, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures is slow to issue decisions, lacks transparency and does not provide an effective domestic remedy for confiscations.


The recommendations of the last four annual reports of the Commission were not addressed. In the coming year, Turkey should in particular:

  • release journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, writers and academics being held in pre-trial detention;
  • ensure a safe, plural and enabling environment for the media to carry out their work independently and without fear of reprisals and dismissals. This includes ending the practice, exercised by both state and non-state agents, of intimidating, interfering with and putting pressure on the media; ® revise the existing legislation, in particular the Anti-Terror Law, the Criminal Code, the Data Protection Law and the Internet Law, to comply with European standards and ensure that it is implemented in a manner which does not curtail freedom of expression;
  • ensure that criminal law provisions on defamation and on other similar offences are not used as a means of putting pressure on critical voices,
  • align criminal and anti-terror legislation and their implementation with European standards, ECHR and ECtHR case-law and Venice Commission recommendations;
  • ensure that any allegation of offence is subject to due process, based on concrete evidence and fully transparent procedures under the authority of an independent and impartial judiciary, and fully respecting the right to a fair trial and relevant procedural rights, in particular the presumption of innocence, individual criminal responsibility, legal certainty, the right to defence, equality of arms and the right to an effective appeal.

Categories: Reports

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