By: Freedom House
Overview President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002. After initially passing some liberalizing reforms, the AKP government showed growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties, and it has pursued a dramatic and wide-ranging crackdown on perceived opponents since an attempted coup in 2016. Constitutional changes adopted in 2017 concentrated power in the hands of the president. While Erdoğan continues to exert tremendous power in Turkish politics, opposition victories in 2019 municipal elections and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the already shaky economy have given the government new incentives to suppress dissent and limit public discourse.
Key Developments in 2020
As the COVID-19 crisis threatened the economy and the government’s political standing during the year, authorities apparently sought to manipulate official health statistics and launched criminal investigations against medical professionals who released independent information about the outbreak or criticized the official response. Hundreds of ordinary people were also arrested for their social media posts related to the coronavirus.
Prosecutions and campaigns of harassment against opposition politicians, prominent members of civil society, independent journalists, and critics of Turkey’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy continued throughout the year. In December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) called for the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the Kurdish-oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who had been imprisoned since 2016 on politically motivated charges; the court’s ruling was ignored. New arrests of HDP members and leaders were carried out during the year, adding to the thousands who have been detained since 2015. The government also continued to replace HDP municipal officials with centrally appointed “trustees.”
Despite a 2019 ECHR ruling that called for the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala, he remained behind bars at year’s end facing trumped-up charges. Detained in 2017, he was acquitted in the original case in February 2020, but a new indictment issued in October accused Kavala and a US academic, without evidence, of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt.