Turkey has undergone a transformation towards installing the rule of law since the country became a candidate member country to the European Union at a Helsinki summit of the bloc in 1999. This was followed by accession partnership talks in 2005 between Turkey and the EU that intended to pave the way for Turkey’s full membership to the bloc.
Particularly between 1999 and 2005, Turkey took incredible steps to lift restrictions to many freedoms while reducing the military’s overwhelming power in politics. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) played a significant role in the implementation of both civilian and military reforms since it came to power in November 2002.
However, Turkey, under the reformist AK Party, and in the ruling party’s third term in power, has, paradoxically, slowed down democratic reforms in recent years in parallel with the stalled accession talks between Turkey and the EU.
Ankara has now come under increased criticism from both inside and outside mainly from the US and the EU over its worsening climate of freedom of expression. There have been many incidents taking place that have justified the criticisms leveled against Turkey for its violation of the right to free speech as well as human rights in general. In the latest pressure tactics exerted upon opposing views, two university students were sentenced to eight years and five months in prison by an İstanbul court for membership in a terrorist organization, while a third student was sentenced to two years and two months in jail for spreading terrorist propaganda. It is hard to understand such reasons cited by the court in its verdict against the three university students since the students faced court hearings for carrying a banner that read, “We want free education, we will get it.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increasingly become intolerant of criticism, which has resulted in some serious questions being raised over whether Turkey is moving towards a repressive regime. Turkey’s greatest democratic deficit is a lack of an opposition that would have otherwise prevented the increasing violation of free speech in Turkey.
The government’s intolerance to criticism has been poisoning a positive climate achieved in the early years of its rule. For example, the Turkish police, which have been receiving training in human rights issues for a long time, have also started to breach the rules set forth, which was seen during street demonstrations. The Turkish police force recently came under severe criticism over its excessive use of force as well as in its uncontrollable usage of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse demonstrators. A Turkish citizen died recently when police pepper sprayed him despite the fact that he allegedly asked the police not to use the spray due to his asthma.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) convicted Turkey on April 10 in the case of Ali Güneş, a Turkish high school teacher who was sprayed with both pepper spray and tear gas during a demonstration. In his case, the ECtHR ruled, unanimously, that there was a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Ali Güneş took part in a demonstration against the 2004 NATO summit in İstanbul and he complained to the ECtHR over his ill-treatment by police and that tear gas was sprayed on his face. The court concluded that there was no justification for the usage of pepper spray and tear gas against Ali Güneş, and that the police were negligent for not conducting an investigation into his complaints.
At a time when many nations have been going through serious economic crises, the Turkish economy is moving in the right direction despite some risks. The AK Party should not risk the achievements that Turkey has made so far, in both the economic and democratic fields under its leadership, by silencing the opposition.