By Alex Neve, Amnesty Canada Secretary General. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeveAmnesty.
As a human rights advocate you know you will not make everyone happy. Government officials, military leaders, armed groups and businesses all attract your scrutiny, criticism and suggestions for improvement. Some act on the advice. Others ignore it. Some strenuously disagree.
Public debate can get heated. The recent exchanges around Omar Khadr’s case are a striking reminder of that. Even in Canada, leading Amnesty International, I’ve felt that heat. I’ve been insulted and called names. I’ve been rebuffed. I’ve been threatened.
But no matter how inflamed things have become, I’ve never been jailed for standing up for human rights.
My close colleague Idil Eser, who does my job in Turkey, heading up our national section there, has been jailed for doing just that. She has been behind bars for the past two weeks because she passionately defends human rights; in Turkey and around the world.
Police have detained two leaders of Amnesty International within the space of a month. These arrests are just the latest in an escalating human rights crisis.Thousands, including political activists, lawyers, journalists and others critical of government policy in Turkey are facing criminal prosecutions on trumped up terrorism charges. Take action now!
"Now I know they jailed me to teach me a lesson - and that lesson, I learnt it."
Celebrated novelist Aslı Erdoğan
Turkey has earned an accolade which holds no glory: according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, it is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.
Globally, one third of all imprisoned journalists, media workers and executives are in Turkey’s prisons, with the vast majority among them waiting to be brought to trial.
Some have been languishing in prison for months. An ongoing state of emergency was declared in July, following a violent coup attempt, blamed by the President and the government on those loyal to the cleric Fethullah Gülen. Journalists have been targeted in an unprecedented crackdown on all strands of opposition media.
Coupled with the closure of more than 160 media outlets, the message - and the resulting effect on press freedom - is clear and disturbing: the space for dissent is ever-shrinking and speaking out comes at an immeasurable cost.
“You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” writes Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet.
On Friday, March 4, 2016, a Turkish court sentenced two Syrian nationals found guilty in the smuggling of 3 year old Alan Kurdi and his family. The photograph of Alan’s lifeless body on a beach in Turkey became the catalyst for an outpouring of sympathy for Syrian refugees in Canada and beyond. Alan’s father, Abdullah must live with the devastating result of joining his family on a tiny boat in the hope they would all find safety. His wife and two sons, as well as two other people, perished on that journey. Far from abating, the number of refugees attempting dangerous maritime crossings continues to grow.
Refugees are fleeing desperate situations and will do whatever they must to save their lives. Often they have no choice but to turn to smugglers to help them escape.
On 2 June last year, Özge Ünlütezcan, a 24-year-old drama student, grabbed her phone to send out a series of tweets. Shortly after, she was stunned to be called into a police station where she was questioned and detained for 18 hours. She says when I call her that she was simply using her right to pass on information about the protests that had begun in Gezi Park some days earlier, and which were rapidly sweeping the country.
She was not alone in her response. During that summer of protests, Turkey’s 10 million-plus Twitter users lit up the internet with millions of tweets detailing what was happening. So why are Özge and 28 other young people now facing up to three years in prison?
What struck me most when I met Zeinah (not her real name), a 29-year-old Syrian refugee in Turkey, were her warm personality and marvelous smile. But her past and present experiences give her precious little to smile about.
Zeinah arrived in Turkey four months ago, having fled her native Syria.
Like other Syrians I met in Istanbul, Zeinah had experienced horrors in her country of origin, and was desperate to start a new life. A teacher by profession, she was jailed by the Bashar al-Assad regime for allegedly providing assistance to opposition groups. She said she was raped and beaten multiple times over the several months she spent in prison and was eventually released due to lack of evidence.
The abuse she suffered in jail has left her with injuries to her spine – and serious psychological trauma – which remain untreated.
Amnesty's Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner blogs on freedom of expression and the widely criticized and ultimately futile attempt to silence Twitter (follow @andrewegardner on Twitter)
The Twitter shutdown started at about 11pm on Thursday night. My telephone started to ring: had I heard that Twitter was blocked? There was confusion about who could access Twitter, who couldn’t, and why. And would the government really take this step – such a brazen attack on freedom of expression – just a week before the local elections?
Yes, that’s just what they have done. Five days on, Twitter is still blocked in Turkey and there is no sign of when the ban might be lifted.
It wasn’t a complete surprise. Four hours before it was shut down, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had threatened to “wipe out” Twitter at an election rally. And as he has said since, he personally gave the order. It’s a textbook example of how policy is made – and human rights infringed – in Turkey.
Text and photographs by Anna Shea, Amnesty International Canada Legal Program Coordinator
I was expecting to have a great vacation in Turkey. I wasn’t expecting to watch history unfold. Fortunately, however, I happened to be in Istanbul between May 26 and June 5. I had rented a room near Taksim Square, and I was in the square or the adjacent Gezi Park for almost 24 hours a day (it’s impossible to stay home when the world seems to be ending…).
For me, the beginning of the protests was the most difficult time, because we all felt forgotten. When I returned to the apartment in the middle of the night on Friday May 31, I anticipated frantic emails and phone messages from my family and friends. But no one had been in touch. This was not surprising, since unless you were directly connected with Turkish protesters on Facebook or Twitter, it was impossible to know what was happening. But the feeling of isolation was nonetheless dreadful. It was such a relief when bloggers and the international media started taking notice. Amnesty – the national office in Turkey and the international secretariat – was one of the first organizations to draw attention to the situation. Simply knowing that people were paying attention – especially people overseas, completely unconnected from the action – was incredibly empowering, much more than I could have imagined.