Civil Society Space — [Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:29 pm on 26th January 2017.

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Photo of Natalie McGarry Natalie McGarry Independent, Glasgow East 2:29 pm, 26th January 2017

That is a very pertinent point. In my opinion, the Turkish state participated very strongly in the breakdown of the peace process in 2015. I think that was very deliberate; in my opinion, the state’s actions since have proven that.

Let us turn to Syria. In Rojava in the northern area, the people are quite clear that they are not trying to create a separate Kurdish state; instead, they are trying to work within the current parameters. If the Turkish Government were to consider some form of federalisation, respecting the identity, culture and language of the Kurdish people, particularly in the south-east of the country, we would get much closer to a peaceful solution. However, while the Turkish Government refuse to do that, we will continue to see the likes of what we have seen in the last few months.

In any kind of democracy, free media, freedom of expression, freedom to protest, judicial freedom and independence, and freedom of assembly are all key rights —the very foundation stone of what it is to be a democracy. Turkey has been celebrated for being a secular state: the bridge between the east and west. That may have been true a number of years ago, but it is certainly not the case now. Under President Erdogan, we are seeing an increasing Islamisation of culture, society, education, the judiciary and the Parliament.

I will read out some numbers. The sheer scale of what has happened in Turkey after the coup and the purge is breathtaking in its enormity. I want people who are listening to this debate to understand. Since 15 July last year, 123,567 public officials have been dismissed; 88,642 people have been detained; 42,452 people have been arrested; 6,986 academics have lost their jobs; 3,843 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed; 151 journalists—some say 200—were arrested; and 3,861 Twitter users were detained and 1,734 arrested. In addition, the following bodies and organisations have been shut: 149 media outlets; 1,284 schools; 800 dormitories; 15 universities; 560 foundations; 54 hospitals; 1,125 associations; and 19 trade unions. In total, 3,520 different entities were shut down.

The remaining media organisations are largely controlled by the Turkish Government—or they are scared, because journalists have already been imprisoned. Next week, Can Dündar—I apologise for my massacring the punctuation of his name—will come to this House as a guest of PEN, to talk about his experience. He was the co-editor of Cumhuriyet, at the time the biggest selling Turkish newspaper. I met him in the House a few months ago; he is currently exiled from Turkey, because he was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison for reporting that Daesh was being allowed to cross the border and transport oil. He was charged as a traitor and, after months of detention and torture, sentenced to prison.

As I say, Can Dündar is coming here next week. He is an international figure and yet Turkey still has no fear about taking such people into detention. Turkey is not scared of any kind of international condemnation, because it does not hear any international condemnation, certainly not publicly. We should ask why that is. Is it because of the refugee crisis and the fact that it has 2.6 million refugees within its borders, or is it because of the blank cheque for 6 billion euros that it was promised by the EU? Is it because of the threat of refugees coming into EU countries? What does Turkey have that prevents international condemnation of heinous actions, as shown by the figures I have just cited?

Turkey is not a healthy documentary, and I have only just started with the journalists; now I have to move on to the politicians. President Erdogan has changed what was a democracy into a presidential state. He is going through all the rote of that at the moment. He has removed the immunity of the Kurdish HDP MPs. Those representatives were democratically elected in 2015 in two separate elections, and the majority of them have been arrested.

When I was in Diyarbakir, I met with the co-mayors. There is a co-mayor system in the Kurdish areas, because they have gender balance. The co-mayors told me that their offices were raided monthly or fortnightly by the Turkish state trying to find some evidence of a link with the PKK. They came up empty-handed every single time. The representatives’ immunity has been taken away, and Erdogan has granted himself expansive powers as a result of the coup, and the co-mayors have been arrested and have been in prison for months. Mayors, co-mayors and HDP politicians are in prison. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the HDP, is in prison, snatched in the middle of the night from his home. All have been charged, with absolutely no evidence, with the vague charge of aiding and abetting terrorism.

I had a guest, whose name escapes me—I will correct the record when I remember—who attended Parliament to speak to a group. On his return to Turkey, he was taken into custody. Part of the charges against him was that he had attended the UK Parliament and criticised President Erdogan. More than 1,000 people have been charged with or are in prison for insulting President Erdogan. That sounds Trumpian in terms of having a thin skin, but actually it is terrifying.

I do not know whether Members in the Chamber or people watching recall that just last year, a German comedian was the subject of international press interest. He had mocked President Erdogan with a satirical song he had written. President Erdogan contacted Angela Merkel to demand that the comedian be charged and dismissed from his position. Erdogan was interfering in German democracy, which is absolutely shocking, but Germany did not tell him where to go. Angela Merkel caved to the pressure from Erdogan, which is a damning indictment of the power he seems to have over Europe.

Post-coup, we are living in this reality where people cannot criticise the President. They can be imprisoned and detained without charge. A massive prison-building programme is ongoing, with multiple prisons being built. When I was in Turkey pre-coup, I met with the families of political prisoners. They told me that their relatives were being situated thousands of miles away so that they could not visit. They said that political prisoners were allowed a visit only once every two weeks. They could not take children in with them as no more than one person could go in at a time, in case there was collusion. They had to split the visiting time up, with the mum getting 20 minutes and each child getting 20 minutes. They were not allowed to visit together. Allegations of the sexual assault, rape and torture of political prisoners are rife. There is verifiable testimony that that has occurred.

What is also happening is a social media campaign aimed at closing down social media spaces and threatening journalists and people who disagree with Erdogan. There are bots that, as soon as things are mentioned, send threats to people on social media. After my detention, I received some death threats emanating from Turkey. I was called a PKK terrorist whore. I received threats of rape and sexual violence. Those threats were auto- generated in seconds. I went to the Met police, and they were very reassuring, but within Turkey those threats are particularly made against women and people seen as opponents of Erdogan at all levels. It would be terrifying to be in a country, not knowing who is making those threats. That is further evidence of the use of threats of violence and sexual violence to close down discussion and spaces.

I have spoken for quite a long time. I conclude by talking about what we can do. Tom Brake made a very interesting point before he had to leave. He said that the civil space and structures exist, and that was one thing that came out of meeting people in Turkey. Civil space in Turkey does exist—NGOs are there, trade unions are there and the structures are still there; it is just that the pressure from above is trying to close them down. There is hope. There are people there and structures that the Government can work with and help support, if they have the desire to do so.

The Prime Minister is meeting with President Erdogan this week. I hope that she goes much further than the Foreign Secretary did when he visited Turkey last year. He said half a sentence about the situation in Turkey. He said that we would like

“a measured and proportionate response”,

which does not go nearly far enough. He spent more time talking about washing machines and trade deals with Turkey than talking about the very real and dangerous civil rights situation there. The UK Government must be seen to be doing more, including standing up for people in Turkey and their relatives around the world, on the impact that Turkey’s actions are having on the closing down of civil space right across the middle east.