The Turkish government struck another hard blow against civil society and human rights advocates in the country. On April 25, a Turkish court sentenced Osman Kavala, a prominent civil rights activist and philanthropist, to life imprisonment for “attempting to overthrow the government.” The court also sentenced seven other human rights defenders to jail for 18 years each on charges of attempting to bring down the government.
Meanwhile, the Turkish authorities have long been targeting Şener Levent, a Turkish Cypriot journalist and a critic of Turkey’s military occupation of Cyprus.
Levent, the director of Turkish Cypriot daily Avrupa, announced on April 26 that a court found him guilty in a case brought against him in Ankara for allegedly “insulting” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a cartoon his newspaper published. Levent was given a one-year prison sentence. The journalist announced the ruling on his social media account, writing:
The fascist dictator’s arms are reaching Cyprus
Through this decision, the fascist government in Ankara, which has intensified its pressure on us, is targeting and trying to intimidate everyone in our country [Cyprus] who opposes it… The law which is stuck between the lips of a dictator is already dead in Turkey.
In an interview with Providence, Levent said:
Tayyip Erdogan does not even recognize the verdicts of the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights). There is no rule of law in Turkey. I do not recognize their court decision. I am a citizen of the Republic of Cyprus and therefore an EU citizen. I am not a Turkish citizen. This decision is literally a mirror of the situation between the colonialists and a journalist in their colony.
In a public statement, the Union of Cyprus Journalists said that they stand by Levent. The president of the Union, George Frangou, added that there is a real danger of Levent being “extradited” to Turkey. Levent lives in the Turkish-occupied part of Nicosia, the capital of the Republic of Cyprus.
In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, violating international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. Ankara carried out its invasion in two phases—on July 20 and August 14—to establish a de facto Turkish-occupied northern zone. Turkish forces then carried out ethnic cleansing in the northern part of the Republic of Cyprus through murders, enforced disappearances, mass rapes, forced evictions, arbitrary expropriation of properties, destruction of cemeteries, the pillage of churches, and the theft of cultural artifacts, amongst other crimes. Two volumes of a historic report by the then European Commission of Human Rights documented these atrocities. The Commission adopted the report in 1976 and initially covered it up. But then someone leaked it to the British Sunday Times in 1977, and the Commission eventually declassified it in 1979.
Turkey forcibly displaced approximately 170,000 Greek Cypriots, and Turkish authorities still deny them their right to return. In the meantime, Turkey has transferred illegal settlers or colonists to the occupied area, which was for millennia majority-Greek prior to the 1974 invasion, to Turkify and Islamize it. To this day, Turkey illegally occupies 36 percent of the territory of Cyprus and has illegally deployed over 40,000 troops in the occupied area.
Sener, who has courageously exposed Turkey’s crimes against Cyprus for decades, is no stranger to Turkish persecution. In 2018, for example, Erdogan supporters in Turkish occupied northern Cyprus targeted the office of his newspaper for denouncing Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, calling it “a Turkish invasion campaign.” Levent also wrote a column drawing parallels between Turkey’s 2018 invasion of Afrin and Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus.
Outraged by Sener’s reporting, Erdogan called on his “brothers from northern Cyprus… to give the required response.” Erdogan supporters in Cyprus then attacked the newspaper’s building. They removed and destroyed the newspaper’s sign and replaced it with a Turkish flag. Then they raided and plundered the offices inside.
In the meantime, the Turkish executive is setting a clear example regarding the type of speech, gestures, and activity that the government will permit and encourage in the country. On April 23, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Uruguay as part of his Latin America travel program. While there on the day before the 107th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, commemorated on April 24, he made the gesture of the Turkish racist “Grey Wolves” organization to demonstrators from the Armenian community. The Uruguay foreign ministry then summoned the Turkish ambassador, Huseyin Muftuoglu, over Cavusoglu’s racist salute. Uruguay government leaders condemned Cavusoglu’s salute, with Uruguay Foreign Minister Francisco Bustillo calling it “unacceptable.” In addition, the Uruguayan Senate suspended sending its Ankara ambassador candidate, Hugo Cayrus, to Turkey at the request of the opposition Broad Front.
In 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) officially recognized the genocide that Ottoman Turkey inflicted on the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek populations between 1914 and 1923. Around 2.5 million Christians perished during the genocide.
Uruguay became the first nation to officially recognize the Armenian genocide in 1965. Turkey, however, still proudly and aggressively denies the genocide. Many venue names across Turkey, including schools, are named after perpetrators of the genocide.
The Grey Wolves, whose hand gesture Cavusoglu made in Uruguay, are a neo-fascist movement that has violently targeted and, in many cases, killed Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Greeks, and others in and outside of Turkey. In 1981, for instance, a member of the Grey Wolves shot and wounded Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
The Grey Wolves proudly endorse the Armenian genocide without calling it genocide. For instance, Umit Ozdag, a member of parliament who has Grey Wolves roots and is now the head of the Victory Party, posted on Twitter a photo of Talat Pasha, one of the architects of the genocide, writing, “The homeland is grateful to you.” On Twitter, many Turkish nationalists have expressed their support for one of the planners of the genocide: “One Talat goes, one thousand Talats emerge,” they wrote.
The Grey Wolves movement is growing across Europe, as well. On April 26, an Armenian Genocide memorial in Brussels was vandalized with the symbol of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a political party in Turkey affiliated with the Grey Wolves.
Meanwhile, Garo Paylan, an Armenian MP of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), submitted a bill titled, “Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and Removal of the Names of Genocide Perpetrators from the Public Domain,” to the presidency of the Turkish parliament. However, the speaker of the parliament, Mustafa Şentop, returned the bill on the grounds that it was contrary to the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure. Paylan said he had submitted the same bill to the parliament every year for the past seven years, and the presidency of the Parliament his rejected all the proposals for using the term genocide.
Since he introduced the bill, the Turkish press and social media have attacked Paylan. Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, for instance, targeted Paylan on Twitter. Amongst a flurry of other negative qualifications, he referred to the bill as “blind, perverse, treacherous, impertinent and immoral.” Altun added that he would respond to the bill with legal action.
The head of the opposition Good Party, Meral Aksener, wrote on Twitter that Paylan’s bill had a “filthy agenda.” Some called for the government to strip Paylan of his parliamentary immunity or even Turkish citizenship. Turkish nationalists filed criminal complaints with the Istanbul prosecutor, demanding that he lift Paylan’s immunity and try him over his bill.
In an Orwellian fashion, the Turkish government also claims that Armenians committed genocide against Turks. Turkey’s Ministry of Defense posted on Twitter, saying, “We commemorate with mercy the Turks massacred by the Armenians in 1915.”
In Turkey, the government could imprison for life those who defend human rights or call for wider civil rights reforms, as Kavala did.
Those who condemn the crimes that Turkey committed against their country of birth, as Levent did, could end up with a prison sentence or be exposed to criminal investigations, physical attacks, or threats.
Those who call for the Turkish government to recognize the Armenian Genocide, as Paylan did, could be exposed to a nationwide hate campaign and risk losing their freedom or even their life.
But those who proudly endorse the Armenian Genocide and support continuing the Turkish occupations of other nations could be the foreign minister or even the president.