(David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California,
Irvine, is the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.
The opinions expressed here are his own.)
By David Kaye
Nov 29 Necmye Alpay greeted me warmly. Dressed
casually in a workout-style jacket and sneakers, her spirit of
optimism stood in stark contrast to the spareness of the
setting: the Bakirkoy Women's Prison in Istanbul.
Alpay has been held in Bakirkoy since the beginning of
September. I met with her when I was in Turkey this month on an
official mission as the United Nations' monitor for freedom of
opinion and expression worldwide. The government invited me to
visit back in February, before the July 15 coup attempt, before
the state of emergency declared by President Recep Tayyip
Erdoan that same month, but well after a crackdown on
government criticism had begun.
Alpay is a prominent translator, linguist and writer based
in Istanbul. She was detained along with her friend, Asli
Erdoan, one of Turkey's most accomplished novelists and
essayists. The government refused my request to meet with
Erdoan (no relation to the president), but allowed me to spend
an hour with Alpay on Nov. 17.
Both women were detained in late August, apparently because
of their association with Özgür Gündem, a pro-Kurdish newspaper
shuttered by the government that month. Ankara claims their work
- guest editing, writing and membership in a symbolic advisory
board - amounted to membership of or propaganda for the Kurdish
Workers Party (PKK), which the United States, the European Union
and Turkey have designated a terrorist group. The women reject
the idea that their writing, suffused with an intense pro-peace
talks orientation, could constitute terrorism or incitement to
In a letter she asked her lawyer to send to me, Erdoan
calls her detention a "witch burning," without basis in law or
reason. Alpay, in a letter she gave me when we we met, calls it
"irrational, illogical and unreal." Prosecutors are threatening
the two women with life in prison.
Across Istanbul at the Silivri Prison, a massive detention
complex for over 13,000 prisoners, the story repeats itself.
There, among dozens of writers and thousands of public servants
(judges, prosecutors, government workers, military
servicemembers, and others), authorities are detaining 13
writers, staff and board members of Cumhuriyet, one of the most
important critical media institutions since modern Turkey's
At Silivri I met five Cumhuriyet writers and executives:
Hakan Karasnr, Bülent Utku, Güray Tekin Öz, Mustafa Kemal
Güngör and Onder Celik. The government denied me visits with
several others, including the famous writers and academics,
Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, cartoonist Musa Kart and columnist Kadri
As with Alpay and Erdoan, the Cumhuriyet staff have no
access to the evidence against them. But those I met have been
told that their articles or advertisements constituted
propaganda or fundraising for Fethullah Gülen, the
ally-turned-enemy of President Erdoan whose movement is widely
believed in Turkey to be responsible for the coup attempt.
These are just a few of an estimated 155 writers, editors
and media executives in prison in Turkey today, most awaiting
trials for apparently doing nothing more than practicing their
profession. Authorities have arrested reporters in the field as
well, as they did over the weekend by detaining (and releasing a
day later) BBC reporter Hatice Kamer in the Kurdish southeast.
Under the same kinds of terrorism charges, the government
has launched a widespread attack on critical voices. It has
closed at least 12 television and 11 radio stations. Kurdish
media has been decimated. Web pages are regularly blocked,
communications networks taken down, social media platforms
censored. Political opposition leaders have been harassed or
arrested. Erdoan himself has initiated some 1,900 defamation
lawsuits, often solely on the basis of ironic, mocking, or even
obnoxious social media posts.
I met with dozens of others caught in the vortex of the
government's repression. Several academics told me how they,
like thousands of others, were removed from their positions,
accused of being Gülenists or pro-Kurd operatives without any
opportunity for challenge. Representatives of several of the
hundreds of non-governmental organizations and cultural centers
shut down by the government told me they'd been given no reasons
for their suspension.
Meanwhile, approximately two percent of Turkey's civil
service - at least 110,000 employees - have been removed from
their jobs on the basis of mere assertions of Gülenist
connections. Thousands of prosecutors and judges, including two
members of the Constitutional Court, have been removed on
similar grounds. And lawyers who defend any of these people are
themselves often investigated and detained.
My UN role gave me the opportunity to meet not only those
crushed by the crackdown, but also those dozens of officials
responsible for implementing it. In meetings with senior
officials and parliamentarians, I heard a common refrain: Turkey
faces real threats. Still reeling from July's failed coup and
major Islamic State and PKK attacks on civilians, one official
after the other claimed that it is essential to take extreme
I also met judges who expressed a deep commitment to the
rule of law. I met bureaucrats who seemed genuinely committed to
protecting their institutions. I came away feeling that much of
the government merely implements the decisions made in the
offices of the presidency and prime minister, whose officials I
sought unsuccessfully to meet.
Since July 15, Erdoan has enacted nearly a dozen decrees
under the state of emergency. His government has told the UN and
the Council of Europe that it would not meet its fundamental
human rights obligations while seeking to protect its citizens
and democratic institutions. The Constitutional Court seems
hamstrung in its ability to consider claims that Ankara has
I asked officials to justify their steps, for instance, to
shut down media and arrest vast numbers of journalists on the
basis of the emergency laws and counter-terrorism statutes. One
official captured what I found to be a consensus: "We are
concerned merely with media that no longer functions as media
but as propaganda for terrorists."
I get that many in the government feel traumatized by the
coup, particularly those in Ankara who watched F-16s bombing
Parliament. The government has every right to confront security
threats. But I cannot avoid the conclusion that the government's
response goes well beyond what is necessary or proportionate.
Until recently, Turkey's allies in Europe and NATO,
cowed by Turkey's strategic position on the borders of Iraq and
Syria and its leverage over Europe's refugee crisis, have said
little about this downward spiral of repression. Last week the
European Parliament took the important but symbolic step to urge
suspension of the discussions over admitting Turkey to the EU.
Not surprisingly, Erdoan's response was to threaten to call off
last year's refugee deal with Europe, saying, "If you go any
further, these border gates will be opened."
Turkey's friends in the West need to do more to convince
Erdoan to recommit to the rule of law. At a minimum, they need
to make clear that, while they will support Ankara's efforts to
confront the threat of terrorism, the country risks its place in
the Council of Europe and other institutions of global
governance and human rights when it persists in such draconian
Erdoan also needs to initiate a change in direction by
releasing all caught up in the frenzy of collective punishment,
dialing back on Turkey's emergency laws and revising Turkey's
overbroad terrorism laws.
In her letter to me, Asli Erdoan suggested, "As far as I
know, I am the first writer in 21st century to be tried with
'life sentence' and I will not tell you how I feel." She
concluded, "We, all the victims of this Mid-Eastern version of
dictatorship, desparately need the help of international
organizations that protect basic human rights and values as
'freedom of thought and speech.'"
Not long ago Turkey was on a path of commitment to protect
those very rights and values. It's not too late to return.
(Reporting by David Kaye)