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Hundreds in Turkey Arrested in Crackdown on Critics of Military Offensive in Syria

Turkish anti-riot police officers run as Kurds protest against Turkish military operation in Syria, in Istanbul, on October 13, 2019. - Fighting has engulfed the border area in northeastern Syria since Turkey launched an offensive on October 9 to push back the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), displacing 130,000 people so far according to the United Nations, amidst warnings from aid groups of another humanitarian disaster in Syria's eight-year-old war if the offensive is not halted. (Photo by Yasin AKGUL / AFP) (Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images)
Hundreds of people have been detained in Turkey for commenting or reporting on Turkey’s recent military offensive in northeast Syria and are facing absurd criminal charges as the government intensifies its crackdown on critical voices, said Amnesty International in a report published today.

We can’t complainreveals how last month’s offensive – Operation Peace Spring – was accompanied by a wave of repression in Turkey which swept up anyone who deviated from the government’s official line. Journalists, social media users and protesters have been accused of “terrorism” and subjected to criminal investigation, arbitrary detention and travel bans. If prosecuted and found guilty, they could face lengthy prison sentences.

“As the tanks rolled across the Syrian border, the government took the opportunity to launch a domestic campaign to eradicate dissenting opinions from media, social media and the streets. Critical discussion on issues of Kurdish rights and politics has become even further off limits,” said Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Marie Struthers.

“Language around the military incursion was heavily policed, and hundreds of people who expressed their dissenting opinions about Turkey’s military operation were rounded up and are facing investigations under anti-terrorism laws.”

Silencing of journalists

On October 10, a day after the offensive began, Turkey’s broadcasting regulatory body (RTÜK) warned media outlets that there would be zero tolerance of “any broadcasting that may negatively impact the morale and motivation of […] soldiers or may mislead citizens through incomplete, falsified or partial information that serves the aims of terror.”

On the same day, two journalists were detained. Hakan Demir of the daily newspaper Birgün was questioned over a tweet on the paper’s official Twitter account based on an NBC report stating that “Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas.”

Meanwhile Fatih Gökhan Diler, managing editor of the Diken news website, was detained after publication of an article with the headline “SDF claim: two civilians lost their lives.” Both journalists were accused of “inciting enmity and hatred” before being released with overseas travel bans pending the outcome of criminal investigations.

Police also burst into the home of journalist and human rights defender, Nurcan Baysal, at 5 a.m. on October 19. She told Amnesty International: “Having my home raided and my children terrorized by 30 heavily armed, masked police officers simply for some social media posts calling for peace, shows the level of suppression of freedom of expression in Turkey.”

Journalist Özlem Oral was detained on the same day and questioned over tweets criticizing ‘Operation Peace Spring’ which were posted on a Twitter account not even her own. She was released the next day with an overseas travel ban, required to regularly report at a local police station, and not to leave İstanbul where she lives.

On October 27, lawyer and columnist Nurcan Kaya was detained at Istanbul airport for criticizing the offensive by tweeting “We know from experience how everything you call a peace operation is a massacre.” She was released after questioning the same day, but received an international travel ban.

It is not just Turkish journalists that have been targeted. On October 25, President Erdoğan’s lawyers announced that they filed a criminal complaint against the director and editor of French magazine Le Point, following the publication of the October 24 issue which used the cover headline “Ethnic cleansing: the Erdoğan method” in its coverage of the military offensive. The lawyers claimed the cover is insulting to the president, a crime under Turkish law.

Targeting of social media users

In the first week of the offensive alone, 839 social media accounts were under investigation for “sharing criminal content” with 186 people reportedly taken into police custody and 24 remanded in pre-trial detention, according to official figures.

One social media user, who was detained and accused of “propaganda for a terrorist organization” had retweeted three tweets, one of which read: “Rojava [the autonomous Kurdish area in northern Syria] will win. No to War.” Like others, these tweets did not come remotely close to constituting evidence of an internationally recognizable crime.

He was given an overseas travel ban and required to report to a local police station twice a month. One lawyer told Amnesty International: “Using the words ‘war’, ‘occupation’, ‘Rojava’ has become a crime. The judiciary says ‘you cannot say no to war’.”

Targeting of politicians and activists

“Operation Peace Spring” has also been used by the government as a pretext to escalate its crackdown on opposition politicians and activists. Several MPs are currently subject to criminal investigations including Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who is facing a criminal probe for comments he made in the media, and a tweet which read: “Government needs to know this, this is an unjustified war and a war against the Kurds.”

According to lawyers from the Bar Association in Şanlıurfa province, at least 54 people were taken into police custody in the province by counter-terrorism officers on October 9 and 10. Among them were members of the Kurdish-rooted leftist opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), as well as members of left-wing opposition trade unions.

Within the first week of the military offensive at least 27 people, many of whom were affiliated with HDP, were detained in Mardin province on terrorism-related charges. Detainees included the elected mayor of the town of Nusaybin. The government later replaced her with the unelected district governor.

On October 12 the Saturday Mothers, relatives of victims of enforced disappearances who have been holding peaceful vigils every Saturday since 2009 to remember their loved ones, were warned by police that they would break up the vigil “if they utter the word ‘war’.”The peaceful gathering was violently broken up as soon as the statement that criticized the military operation was read out.

“Since the start of the military offensive, Turkey’s already entrenched atmosphere of censorship and fear has deepened, with detentions and trumped-up charges used to silence the few who dare to utter any challenge or criticism of ‘Operation Peace Spring’,” said Marie Struthers.

“The Turkish authorities must stop gagging opinions they don’t like and end the ongoing crackdown. All charges and prosecutions of those targeted for peaceful expression of their opposition to Turkey’s military operations should be immediately dropped.”