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'Civil society dialogue' to improve rights in Turkey

Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, told DW about his discussions with Turkish officials over Gezi Park problems, and what he thinks needs to be done to improve rights to assembly.

DW: You visited Turkey a couple of days ago and discussed the Gezi Park events and other human rights issues with the Turkish authorities. What could you tell us about your observations?

Nils Muiznieks: This was an unprecedented mobilization of people that Turkey has not seen in recent years, and the police were often caught unprepared and disoriented. There were many incidents of excessive use of force: covering whole neighborhoods with tear gas, using tear gas to flush people out of neighborhoods in closed spaces, targeting tear gas canisters at people. There is case law in the European Court of Human Rights on this - this is not a new problem in Turkey - and it needs to be addressed. And the key thing that needs to be done is to effectively investigate allegations of police misconduct and excessive use of force.

You met Turkish authorities about these events. What did they tell you?

The Turkish authorities told me several different perspectives on the events. For some, this was about environmental protests that got hijacked by violent professional protesters; others are looking for foreign influences, foreign funding; others see illegitimate protests on the street; others see discontent that grew rapidly because of police misconduct. So I heard several different versions, but the basic line was that the police did a decent job in very difficult circumstances and that there were many incidents of violent protesters, especially after the initial phase.

Are you satisfied with these answers?

NM: I received many witness accounts, videos, photos and forensic medical evidence suggesting that the violence and the excessive use of force by the police was quite widespread, it was not only in exceptional cases. And there is a huge gap or gulf between the perspectives of civil society and much of officialdom. And the only way to narrow this gap is to have effective investigations into police misconduct. I'm hoping that the ombudsman and the national human rights institute will step up and establish themselves as an independent voice that can look after the rights of people.

You noted that professionals such as doctors, lawyers, academics and media workers expressed fear of intimidation as well as of administrative and juridical measures against them. Did you bring up this issue with Turkish authorities?

I said there are serious concerns among many professional groups that are being targeted for pressure or intimidation because of the views they expressed or because they provided medical or legal assistance, and that this is unacceptable. It's clearly legitimate to go after those who engage in violent protests, who attacked police, attacked property, attacked other private citizens, and those people clearly should be on the radar screen of law enforcement. But not professional groups who are doing their job or expressing support for the protests.

What do you think Turkish government should do to effectively guarantee the right to assembly and to prevent human rights violations by law enforcement?

The first step is to enter into an intensive dialogue with civil society and these professional groups. I heard especially from the governor of Istanbul, who in recent days and weeks has become quite active on social media and in organizing meetings with youth groups - I think if this kind of effort had been put into a dialogue and communication earlier on, that many other problems could have been avoided. I think that is one step.

I think another step is for the human rights structures. The ombudsman and human rights institute should take up their role as kind of a central point between the government and the civil society. And I think that much of the legislative framework and the policy of police in demonstrations need to be revisited, as does the legislation on public protest and demonstrations. I think there are many shortcomings to the legislation, which basically permits only a limited number of places to be used for protest and demonstrations. This has to be looked as well.

Nils Muiznieks has been the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe since April 2012. In his native Latvia, he worked as a human rights activist and political scientist.

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