AK Party Istanbul Deputy and Deputy Chairperson in Charge of Human Rights Ravza Kavakçı Kan told Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview that applications to the independent State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission (OHAL Commission), which is evaluating the complaints of those who think they were unfairly treated during the state of emergency, has reached 70,000 and is likely to increase.
She added that the government has been carrying out a sensitive policy toward rights violations faced by minority citizens, saying that the properties of certain religious foundations that had been expropriated have been returned in the recent past.
Daily Sabah: Dismissals from public service and removals from office following the July 15 coup attempt have created a perception of victimization in international media and public opinion. In your capacity as the deputy chairperson in charge of human rights, how do you view these accusations of victimization?
Ravza Kavakçı Kan: First of all, we need to emphasize an important point: The view that "A perception of victimization arose in international media and public opinion in this process" is not correct. Nor is it a generally accepted discourse.
On July 15, the most fundamental human right of the 80 million citizens of the Republic of Turkey, their right to life, was violated. It is very important to understand this. On that day, 250 citizens who took to the streets were martyred. Another 2,193 veterans chose to forgo their physical integrity. Thousands and millions of nameless heroes were on the streets. Those really victimized this way were the 80 million citizens and oppressed people around the world who pinned their hopes on these 80 million. So, we categorically reject that victimization discourse.
The process intended to hold the perpetrators to account before the law is currently going on and since the issue is of enormously extensive dimensions, naturally it takes time. But Turkey is a state of law and what is needed will be done within this framework. The independent State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission (OHAL Commission) was established to evaluate the complaints of those who think they were treated unfairly over issues that have not been submitted yet to the court in the judicial system. Experts began receiving appeals. We refer those claiming to be wronged to this commission. In addition to government officials, at the party we are also working carefully on this issue. I am sure similar works are being carried out by the security and intelligence agencies, and at different levels. At the Department of Human Rights, we would like to see the grievances of all the aggrieved persons redressed. But at the same time, we do not and cannot compromise on the determination to not let even a single Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ) member who took part in the treacherous coup attempt go scot-free. For this is the wish and demand of our people, particularly of the martyrs and veterans.
I can say, at least on my part that since members of parliament would have been probably the first group to be liquidated if the coup attempt had succeeded, the fact that we deputies and our people stand firm and keep standing doesn't mean we haven't been through a trauma or the trauma has ended. Those who really suffered are us; the nation as a whole, with the deputies and ordinary people alike, that was targeted during July 15. We will all breathe a deep sigh of relief when the real perpetrators are meted out justly deserved punishments by law by the independent judiciary. Further, we will all give a sigh of relief when Fetullah Gülen, the head terrorist who led people to this grave treachery, is held to account before a court.
DS: As you expressed, the OHAL Commission was established to investigate these claims of unjust treatment and has been working for a month. Could you share some information about the commission's works? How many applications has it received in the first month? How is the process going on?
RKK: According to the latest information, the number of applications is at around 70,000 currently and surely this figure will further increase. Of course, these are not the types of issues to be settled immediately in three weeks, because each file should be carefully reviewed and the decision should be made accordingly. The commission's members and experts at the commission follow and will continue to follow the issue. No matter how many applications are made, each will be investigated individually. And we will follow up on the issue as well.
DS: Do representatives of diplomatic missions and foreign human rights organizations monitor the FETÖ trials you have just mentioned?
A very good question indeed. I haven't seen anyone from them.
Do FETÖ trials fall within the scope of human rights organizations? I am not sure about this. At this point, there is a victim and the state brought to justice members of the terrorist organization that caused this grievance. In this regard, it is a necessary process in a state of law. Since there is no rights violation, human rights organization might not feel a need to attend trials.
DS: Last month, Turkey was criticized internationally for the arrest of some human rights activists including the director of Amnesty International's Turkey branch. What are your opinions on this issue? Could you inform us on the latest situation?
No country welcomes the indictment of its own citizens in another country. This is a legal process. Turkish police and intelligence agencies have conducted an investigation into these persons and the prosecutor's office took action. Everyone has to wait for this legal process to be concluded. The interference of politicians in ongoing legal processes cannot be expected in any country in the world. Those that remind Turkey that it is a state of law want us, when they have certain issues, to move outside the bounds of the law. When a certain issue is debated, every country says "our legal system requires such and such, the law dictates this and that, our judiciary is independent, and so on." But when Turkey's domestic law is in question, they demand us to make different evaluations. As a politician, I am very much annoyed by this situation. Turkey is a state of law. Detentions are not arbitrary, but are based on investigations resulting from intelligence reports and conducted in accordance with court decisions. We will see the final decisions of the courts – for we don't know yet but will learn only in the end – after the trials. So, as the trial process is still going on, I don't think it's proper to talk much about the issue.
DS: It was frequently reported in media that members of police special forces conducting an operation in the village of Altınsu in Şemdinli, Hakkari tortured tens of civilians. Have you inquired into these claims? What have you learned so far?
We immediately met with officials from the Interior Ministry and learned that no such thing happened. During an operation in that area, a police officer was killed and a house from which shots were fired at policemen was raided. A scuffle occurred around the house when the police officers were detaining suspects. But please don't trust the photographs circulating in the media, on social media and WhatsApp groups. I have followed the process closely. Let me tell it openly and clearly: It was the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments that put an end to torture and declared a zero tolerance policy on torture. It is the AK Party that has ended the practice of torture in Turkey. It's necessary to evaluate also from this perspective not only this incident but also similar incidents that had been talked about and similar allegations that had been brought about. That the issue of torture has dropped from Turkey's agenda is the AK Party's achievement. The issue arose against such a background, which apparently disturbs some. Whoever does wrong will be dealt retribution. Indeed, regarding the allegations – though the incident wasn't exactly as portrayed on social media – we know that those thought to have done wrong receive the necessary punishment like suspension from duty. This is very important; we have no tolerance for torture. It's not an easy process but the struggle continues within the bounds of the law and no one has a right to cast a shadow on our brave security forces carrying out this struggle. For this reason, we always follow this sensitive issue closely.
DS: The AK Party's reforms on human rights and freedoms have played an important role so far in its success. But how do you view the criticism that in recent years and especially after the July 15 coup attempt there has been a retreat in gains in this area?
I think this is rather unjust criticism. What gains has Turkey backtracked on? There is a wind of change across the world. But sadly, it doesn't blow in a positive direction. There is a worrying surge of racism, fascism and xenophobia. France has extended the state of emergency repeatedly after a terrorist attack. Turkey has been targeted by terrorist groups many times. Do our lives not matter? Not even a single person should fall victim to terror. I tell this to my foreign colleagues and to friends from the foreign media. For me, there is no difference between lives lost in Paris, Nice, Berlin and those lost in Syria, Idlib, and Aleppo, or lives lost in Moscow, Africa, in some obscure place in Rwanda. In other words, lives lost to terrorism anywhere in the world are equally valuable. I ask them, "Do you think the same?" That is to say, words like white, black, race and faith are not relevant here. There is no good or bad terrorism, it is ugly in any case. There can be no such thing as "My terrorist is good, but yours is bad." Turkey is fighting Daesh and PKK terrorism in several areas and on several levels.
And it is carrying out a struggle against the PKK's Syrian offshoot Democratic Union Party (PYD), FETÖ and the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C) outside its borders. It may not be easy for another country to understand this process. No one has a right to criticize Turkey. Our economy continues to grow and investments are going on despite these hardships. We put out a great struggle to do all this within the bounds of the rule of law. As those watching the trials and defense of suspected coup plotters see, all defendants use their inalienable legal right to self-defense to the full. And we also keep a close watch on this. But surely our priority is to defend the rights of the veterans and families of martyrs. This is not easy to explain. For there hasn't been a similar process in our modern history. Nor is there a similar example in world history. That's why it is hard to understand and manage it but our judicial system continues to operate. As outsiders to the system, we are doing our best to conclude the process without creating victims.
To sum up, in the AK Party we are trying to make our country a more livable place without upsetting the balance between security and liberty. The AK Party has worked to raise the standards of democracy and human rights during its 15-year rule and we won't allow these gains to be lost for any of them.
Turkey is a democratic state of law. The rule of law and independence of the judiciary is essential. The international agreements we have signed and the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey guarantee the natural rights of all citizens.
DS: How do you evaluate the criticisms about Turkey in the U.S. government's International Religious Freedom Report 2016, over the restrictions on the rights of minorities and over several individuals with ties to Christian groups facing detention and problems with residency permits?
We are doing our utmost to fight against the rights violations faced by citizens who can be considered minorities. The properties of certain religious foundations had been expropriated. These have been returned. I will never forget the words of a Turkish-Armenian citizen whom I met during the election campaign: "My name is Mari, but I always had to introduce myself as Meryem because I was discriminated against. Now I can easily say, 'My name is Mari and I'm Armenian.'" Values that make us who we are, we believe, are a source of richness. If there is a rightful demand, we are ready to struggle for the rights of every citizen, regardless of their faith or opinion. We have followed and will continue to follow this issue closely as well.
Of course, I would like to state that the said report has nothing to do with facts at all. It's not reasonable to take serious a report that is far from scientific and is based on comments on the social media posts of various individuals.
DS: The same report also criticizes the government's attitude of not recognizing Alevi places of worship. In a ruling last year, the ECtHR stated that Alevis in Turkey were religiously discriminated against and their religious rights were violated. Are there any steps to be taken in this sense?
Like all the communities that make us, "us," Alevi citizens deserve our assistance and support in issues they think their rights are violated in. On the other hand, some definitions are philosophical in nature. And arguments on those have to be separated… During the AK Party rule, our municipalities have, for instance, built Cemevis where needed. The practice in general and at the local level is to meet whatever needs they may have. If there is any lack, we will take care to remove it. We need to draw a new road map on that.
DS: Can you inform us, then, on your road map as the AK Party's Human Rights Department?
The department was founded in 2015. Before that, it operated under our Social Policies Directorate. The coup attempt, elections, extraordinary congresses and the referendum stunted the targeted progress. Therefore, we start with a clean slate. God willing, we will build new things on the work that has been already done. The first thing that comes to mind on human rights is violations. The fact is, very positive things are taking place in our country; in Turkey, there is wonderful progress on human rights. I am before you as a member of a family that has experienced human rights violations for four generations. The removal of the bans on the headscarf and on Kurdish as mother tongue; there are Cemevis now where Alevi citizens could not find any, their needs are taken into account… Moreover, our approach is one that, regardless of being a woman or a man, Laz or Circassian, Turkish or Kurdish, considers all our values as indispensable. Right now, the approach in power is one that takes pride in serving the public. Minority or majority, we value everyone's rights. For years, the ECtHR ignored the headscarf as a human rights issue, despite the fact that a sizable share of Sunni women in the Republic of Turkey wears a headscarf. On the headscarf issue we have made enormous progress. While many countries disregarded our Syrian brothers, we opened our doors and invited them… Many good things are done; on behalf of human rights, women's rights, children's rights… Yet, we have a long road to go. Because there is violence, there is evil, there are people who lack moral values. Women's, children's, innocent people's rights are violated for that reason.
Our road map includes contributing to the creation of policies in Turkey and the world to promote the rights of women, children, elders, adults, refugees, the environment, employees and employers. Our department is vested with the power to do work on our own organization, on people who live in Turkey, and on other countries. We plan to establish ties with national and foreign press, and to start a regular information flow. We will organize direct meetings with international organizations that report on Turkey. We will inform them both about the flaws in their reports, and about issues where we can provide supportive information. Our organization will provide trainings on human rights; we will provide information and support services. We will share whatever progress is made in our country on human rights, and will closely monitor unresolved violations. We intend to be very watchful of discriminations and other rights violations against our citizens, especially identity-based discriminations. In the face of increasing Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism, we will closely watch human rights violations. And we will interfere where we can.
DS: What are your efforts to prevent violence against women and domestic violence?
There are many things we have achieved. And if there is any lack or failure in the implementation of laws, it will be dealt with. Our Family and Social Policies Ministry is doing wonderful work, and develops and implements projects. We are closely watching these efforts and other positive developments. It is extremely hard to deal with violence. The world doesn't know it, but in cases of violence against women, the level of feedback decreases as the educational level goes up. You would expect the opposite. This is because educated women feel greater shame and have greater trouble in expressing it. Our Family and Social Policies Ministry is working on a system where women subjected to violence can file complaints and be examined – in cases of physical and sexual violence – at one center or under the same roof. What matters here, however, is to take preventive measures, measures that would deter the aggressor. Sadly, there is a lot lacking on that issue, and we need to deal with that as part of education. Actually, we need to achieve a mental transformation.
We need to change the understanding that "nothing should interfere between husband and wife." We need to change our behavioral understanding in social and personal relations. Life is more difficult for women. Especially for those who experience violence and pressure. We are very sensitive to victimizations and do our best to closely monitor these issues. With certain laws, we increase the number of shelters for women and our motto is, "Let no one be left on the street, let victims of violence find shelter." There is also the handcuff practice, which is a pilot study. The aim is to put an electronic bracelet to the aggressor and prevent him from approaching his victim. The victim who senses a violation can inform the authorities by pressing a panic button on the system. This is actually something to be learned at younger ages, at school. Only then can it be prevented altogether. And there are so many things we have to do about that.