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New draft law seeks to paralyze Turkish civil society

Groups across the ideological spectrum say the law, aimed at keeping Turkey from being blacklisted by the international money laundering watchdog, includes articles that will severely hamper their work.

Turkish civil society organizations spanning the ideological spectrum are raising the alarm over controversial legislation they say will grant the government sweeping new powers to monitor and proscribe their activities.

The draft law to “Prevent the Financing and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” is supposed to keep Turkey from being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based watchdog monitoring terrorism financing and money laundering. But the law being debated in the Turkish parliament has been padded with numerous articles allowing the government to appoint trustees to nongovernmental organizations, to arbitrarily suspend their activities, seize their assets and monitor their fund-raising activities and to shut them down altogether.

Istanbul-based human rights lawyer Erdal Dogan said that Turkey, following the adoption of this measure, would be drifting closer to institutionalized authoritarian rule.

“The law canonizes anti-democratic decrees that were adopted under emergency law in the wake of the [failed July 15, 2016] putsch,” Dogan told Al-Monitor. Tens of thousands of bureaucrats, academics, judges, journalists, servicemen and policemen were purged and detained under the decrees on charges of taking part in the coup. Civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, have been targeted as well.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch, said, “This law conceals in it enormous powers granted to the Interior Ministry to curtail and restrict the actions of nongovernmental groups that it doesn’t like.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party and its far-right allies command a majority in the parliament. The bill is therefore likely to be passed, dealing a further blow to civil society, whose determined efforts to steer Turkey toward a more democratic path have radiated hope even as Erdogan moves the country in the opposite direction.

Hundreds of civil society groups have signed a raft of petitions and are lobbying the parliament for the bill to be revoked.

“It’s a testament to the strength of Turkey’s civil society that after this long in power Erdogan still feels compelled to take such crude steps to silence it,” said Nicholas Danforth, senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

“For all of Erdogan’s power in the political sphere, social, academic and professional organizations continue to push back against his hegemonic aspirations,” Danforth said in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.

Islamic groups have different worries. They fear the law will be seized upon by Western governments or Erdogan’s pro-secular rivals, should they ever come to power, to shut them down. 

They include the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the globally active pro-Islamic Turkish charity, which has been accused of delivering aid to jihadi groups in Syria, a charge the foundation denies.

“This is among our main concerns,” Osman Atalay, a senior member of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “I am in favor of all associations and foundations being held to national and international scrutiny. But this must be done without falling prey to ideological, religious and cultural biases.” The sharp reaction shown by religious groups, some hope, may lead Erdogan to veto the law.

Feray Salman, who leads a joint platform of Turkish human rights groups, warned in a meeting with opposition lawmakers in the parliament Wednesday that Turkey’s membership in the Council of Europe could be further jeopardized by the law.

The Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg-based based body’s judicial arm, the European Court of Human Rights, ruled Wednesday for the immediate release of Turkey’s most prominent political detainee, Selahattin Demirtas. The former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party has been jailed since November 2016 on flimsily documented terror charges. The court ruled that his continued incarceration flouted the European Convention’s rules on the restriction of rights, but apparently to little effect. In a speech in the parliament today, Erdogan called the ruling “hypocritical” and “entirely political.” The court had defended “a terrorist,” he said.

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