Dangerous Days for Turkey’s Democracy

The following article is contributed by Brown affiliate and Turkish citizen, Jesse Smith. We are extraordinarily grateful for the risks they are taking in writing this article for Brown War Watch. It highlights the incredible pressures democracy is currently under in Erdogan’s Turkey. 

It is past time for the international community to understand the full extent of the damage done, and the continuing dangers to democracy in Erdogan’s Turkey. The steady degradation of human rights, separation of powers, and freedom of speech and press in Turkey in recent years has accelerated in recent months. In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) fined Turkey 60,400 Euros for detaining Selahattin Demirtas, former president of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)[1]. The next day, Turkish courts condemned journalist Can Dundar to 27 years in prison [2]. Although the men share no past relationship, they are united by their fight against the corruption of law, and the death of free speech in Turkey. To better appreciate the fate of these two men, it is best to trace the extent of the diminishment of the freedom of expression in Turkey, why and how it has devolved, and what might be the consequences and impacts of this trajectory. 

Understanding Dundar’s case begins by examining two challenging years for Turkey (2014 and 2015) following numerous terrorist attacks, primarily by Islamist jihadist groups [3]. One of these terrorist attacks, a bombing in Ankara was directed at people preparing to protest the government’s ineffective management of terrorism and to call for peace, killed more than 100 people and injured more [4,5]. During this time, Can Dundar, the general publishing coordinator of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, received videos from the Turkish-Syrian border [6]. The videos showed that the country’s intelligence agency carried munitions illegally to Syria. This news put Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in a tight spot. He claimed the guns were for Turkmen in Syria which they denied. Further, the disembarkation location for the weapons was not close to the Turkmen, but rather Islamic jihadist groups. Erdogan eventually acknowledged these claims but declared the munitions transport a state secret, and accused journalists of spying [6,7,8]. In 2014, after legal procedures, Dundar, and his colleague Erdem Gul were sent to Silivri prison,  known for hosting political detainees [9]. 

The infamous Silivri Prison in Turkey: home to Turkey’s political prisoners.

In the initial trial, the Constitutional Court, the highest legal body in Turkey, found Dundar innocent [12]. However, Erdogan believed the journalist to be guilty and asked the local court for Dundar’s imprisonment. The journalist left the country shortly afterwards, yet the prosecution proceeded. Dundar, the winner of numerous prestigious journalism awards including the CPJ International Press Freedom Award, PEN Hermann Kesten Award, ECPMF Press Freedom and the Future of Media Award , continued his work from Germany. The government subsequently used this as evidence of a “lack of regret regarding the crime.” The local court eventually complied with Erdogan’s demands, rather than the Turkish constitution[10,11]. They found Dundar guilty of “spying”, “collaborating with terrorist groups without being part of it”, and condemned him to more than a quarter-century-long prison term for doing his job. The decision aimed to intimidate individuals, in Turkey and abroad, who might dare to be critical of the government. Penalties were not given to those who acted illegally, but to those who revealed the illegality. The case has been exemplary of how the current government has abused the law to acquit those in power.

The attack on the legal system is profound. Utilizing referendums, Erdogan and the executive obtained the authority to appoint judges, bringing the judiciary under its heel. Those judges that preceded[1]  this maneuvering have felt the pressure from other departments under the executive branch including the police, gendarmeries, and ministries. With this broadened executive power and the majority of seats in the parliament, the Turkish president now has all the tools to[2] [RL3] control the media. Holding this power, Erdogan has increased impunity and dulled accountability. Dundar’s case is just one example. 

As Rousseau suggested, people sometimes compromise their rights in the quest for safety and peace – and so it is with Turkey. The government has used the specter of terrorism as a cudgel to augment its power, to the detriment of speech, press, and law. But freedom of expression and the press are critical to democracy. “The power of people”, is not only expressed through elections, but also via the ability to criticize, protest, publish dissent, and gather in public spaces. When the government takes wrong, unexpected, disapproved, illegitimate, or illegal actions, it is essential for people to voice concern without constraint and to exercise this democratic power. This mutual agreement between the state and the people necessitates a representative, an executor, and a feedback and commentary mechanism. For the mutual agreement to work, all three mechanisms need to be effective [13]. In Turkey today, the feedback mechanism is broken. No opposition is permitted without penalty. People who express or even imply disapproval about the government’s actions may be charged with financial, administrative, and more serious kinds of penalties. Abuse of the executive power, and prioritizing its[4] jurisdiction over the courts has paved the way to “legitimize” the government’s mistakes and to mute the press. 

Numerous journalist arrests after critical events (17/25 December Bribery Scandal, Gezi Protests, 15 July failed putsch attempt, etc.) show the government’s awareness of the power and importance of free expression [14]. The likely reason behind such powerful control measures resides in Erdogan’s fear of losing power. His political power is rooted in a base that deifies him: “If Erdogan says so, it is right” is the commonly-held view of his supporters. During his 18-year rule, he has inevitably made mistakes, often considerable ones. The right to freedom of expression is the most straightforward way to challenge these mistakes. Obviously critique challenges this political power based on his “excellent”, “half-god” image [16]. Ultimately, the result is Turkey’s reputation as “journalist prison” – the second to worst jailer of  journalists today [17]. 

The discretionary use of the state’s power to sue, penalize and imprison people turns the country into something reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. A video posted on social media, a critical speech of the government’s pandemic policies, even doing one’s job are cited as “evidence” for collaborating with terrorist groups. In spring 2020, more than 310 people were arrested because of their social media posts criticizing the government’s pandemic management [18]. In the aftermath of the failed 15 July putsch attempt, even a malevolent notice to the police deeming someone a member of a terrorist group could be counted as sufficient evidence for condemning the person to prison. In the period following the putsch attempt, more than a quarter-million people were the victims of “Decree-Laws” [19]. Decree-Laws are usually issued in times of national and international emergency and instability like a war, an earthquake, or a pandemic for more effective and faster responses. Under these state-of-exception decrees, every critic of the AKP government risks the accusation of “collaborating with terrorist groups.” The explicit penalizing of opposition public figures has become all too common. 

Political detentions, such as the Demirtas’s case, are clearly aimed at[5]  deterring government criticisms and creating an atmosphere of fear. It has proven a successful method for the government. ECtHR decided twice that Demirtas’s imprisonment was political rather than legal. The Court also declared that the detainee’s human rights including the freedom of speech, and the right to be elected were violated [20,21]. President Erdogan simply declared he would not comply with the Court’s rule, and that ECtHR was “a hypocrite”, once again deeming Demirtas a “terrorist” [22].  

The aggressive use of the label “terrorist” taps into nationalist emotions and a real fear of terrorism among the Turkish people. By defining “patriotism” according to his personal values and interests, and pushing critique of the government outside of its parameters, Erdogan and his government have transformed journalism into a trade filled with fear and hesitation. In 2019, during a military operations in the northern Syrian Border, 839 social media users were accused of “criminal posting” prompting their investigation. Simply because they expressed their disapproval of Turkey’s intervention in Syria they were deemed “traitors to the country” [23].  Academics for Peace shared the same experience. More than 2000 academics signed a declaration critical of the state’s policies towards Kurdish people in 2016 and were sued. Afterward more than 200 of them were sentenced to prison. The first acquittal among these academics was in September 2020. The president at the time called the universities to “take the necessary actions.” After this call, universities and the local courts filed lawsuits against the academics; most lost their jobs and were banned from traveling abroad and getting jobs at other institutions [24].

 Although the people of Turkey are used to hearing academics, journalists, activists, and opposition parties and their leaders grouped with terrorist organizations; they fear that one day their name too will appear on a prosecution paper with the label “terrorist”. When this happens, even ECtHR rulings seem powerless to help. This constant fear renders living in peace impossible in Turkey. Something as innocuous as clicking on the “follow” button of opposition leaders on social media fills people with nervousness. During the Gezi protests, which arose to express the discontent for the then government in 2013, 85 to 250 journalists lost their jobs because of their coverage of the protests, and more than 5500 people were sued [25,26]. Known as “AKP Trolls”, the unknown people paid by the government to “transmit-trap” government critical posts, and even likes, create the feeling among Turkish people that Big Brother watches over them every second. Living with the constant fear of “Will liking this post make me visible to trolls?”, or “What if my neighbor heard my last speech about the pandemic management and I’m arrested tomorrow?” has dragged the people of Turkey down into a great despair [26]. With Erdogan exerting control over all of the branches of power in the country how can laypeople seek justice? 

This situation has badly eroded trust in legal institutions and the media. In a  poll held in late 2020, 53% of the participants stated that they do not trust, or have low trust, in the Turkish legal system –  29% abstained from responding. The same poll showed that the media is faring no better. Over sixty percent of poll participants stated that they have low, or no, trust in the media – 10% abstained from answering [27]. These results are not shocking when you consider the moves against the constitution and democratic norms that have become the standard in the country. Every day in Turkey brings new human rights violations, with widespread impunity encouraged by oppressing the press and personalizing the laws. It also comes as no surprise that Turkey is listed as “not free” by Freedom House [28]. No freedom of speech for critics, no freedom for publicly opposing the government, no freedom for journalism: democracy, meaning people’s power, has fallen under one-man’s power. The Erdogan regime, by eliminating the press and undermining the law, has transformed Ataturk’s democratic Turkey into an autocracy. 


[1] www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-55455193

[2] www.evrensel.net/haber/421881/can-dundara-27-yil-6-ay-hapis-cezasi-verildi.





[7] www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2015/11/151127_mit_tirlari_neler_olmustu

[8] t24.com.tr/haber/erdoganin-turkmenlere-yardim-dedigi-mit-tirlarindaki-muhimmat-cihatcilara-gitmis,287151


[10] www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/can-dundara-27-yil-6-ay-hapis-1800782


[12] kararlarbilgibankasi.anayasa.gov.tr/BB/2015/18567

[13] Rousseau, J, & Ligaran 2015, Du Contrat Social, Ligaran Éditions.

[14] cpj.org/europe/turkey/

[15] www.tccb.gov.tr/assets/dosya/15Temmuz/onsorudafeto_tr_en.pdf



[18] bianet.org/bianet/saglik/221834-316-kisiye-koronavirus-gozaltisi.

[19] ohalkomisyonu.tccb.gov.tr/.

[20] www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/19/turkey-opposition-politicians-detained-four-years

[21] www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-echr-demirtas-idUSKBN28W1PJ



[24] barisicinakademisyenler.net/node/1.

[25] www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/12000/eur440222013en.pdf.

[26]Deveci, Cem, and Burcu Nur Binbuğa Kınık. “Nationalist Bias in Turkish Official Discourse on Hate Speech: A Rawlsian Criticism.” Turkish Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 26–48. 


[28] www.freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-world/2020

End the war in Yemen

On Monday, January 25th, tens of thousands of people in Yemen and around the world took to the streets on a global day of action to demand an end to the war on Yemen.

We know that the new Biden-Harris administration will be more focused on this issue in the coming weeks, so we must act quickly to ensure that our voices are heard. It wont take you long – we promise – and together our collective efforts will make an impact! Please join us to help end this war – read to the bottom of this post to see what you can do to apply people power to end this humanitarian disaster.

The human suffering is overwhelming. It is estimated that 85,000 children have died of hunger and 100,000 civilians from bombings since 2015. Although, it is expected that the actual toll is significantly higher as many die without ever reaching medical attention.

The UN considers the war on Yemen to be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Today, 24 million Yemenis — 80% of its population — are dependent on humanitarian aid to survive. The Saudi-led, US-backed coalition has imposed restrictions on virtually all imports, delaying the delivery of goods including critical supplies and medicine, compounding the misery. Currently, Yemen is on the brink of famine, suffers from the first outbreak of cholera since 2016 (a curable disease), and is being devastated by the global COVID pandemic.

The USA has played a key role in this development by providing weapons and logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition — including cluster bombs which are deemed illegal by a treaty of 110 states. Human Rights Watch and other groups have declared that the USA’s role in this crisis amounts to war crimes.

We in Rhode Island sit at the doorstep of Raytheon, one of the world’s biggest weapons manufacturers, who have profited ($1.8 billion) from selling armaments which are destroying Yemen.

Call for action!

There are immediate, impactful actions that you can take today to help put an end to the crisis paid for by our tax dollars.

Please consider helping with at least one of the following, and please do us the enormous favor of filling out the ‘Yemen Pledge for Action‘ form (below) so that we can thank you and celebrate the strength of our collective efforts – people powered by your actions today.

Tweet your representatives with #YemenCantWait

Email your (RI) representatives’ office (example below)

Share, in any way, a video/article about the current crisis

Call our representatives (example below)

This is actually very simple and quick! Feel free to use the script below. They will not be chatty; they will hear you and say ‘thank you’. You may not even reach the Senator/Rep but someone from their office. This is OK. It might seem like not much happened, but actually this is one of the primary ways to apply people power.

“My name is ____, and I am one of your constituents. I am calling to express my discontent with the situation in Yemen. I am calling on Senator/Representative ______ to support legislative action that will direct the Biden administration to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led hostilities in Yemen completely, ban arm sales to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., and resume humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people to at least its 2019 levels”

“Yemen is the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis, and ” (pick one). “Thank you for your attention and please help us end this war”

  • Congress has not authorized this war. What are we doing supporting the Saudi-led coalition? Congress must take its power back, and stop giving our Administration a blank check to wage war in our name.
  • Over 85,000 children have died of hunger and more than 100,000 people from direct attracts since the bombings began in 2015. We must not permit those deaths to be in our names.
  •  The overall economic collapse, exacerbated by limited function of airports and seaports, has pushed the prices of basic goods out of reach for most, worsening hunger and inequality. We cannot permit this injustice.
  • There have been more than 1.1 million cases of cholera. this is a curable disease! Additionally, they have been devastated by the coronavirus global pandemic. We cannot participate in this catastrophe by preventing basic needs from reaching those communities.
  • 22.2 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance. The USA has stopped much of the support given to the Yemeni people in 2020, while increasing the number of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries. We cannot participate in this catastrophe by preventing basic needs from reaching those communities.

Much of the information in this post is echoed from the Stop the War Coalition and the Yemeni Alliance Committee movements. We call on all Rhode Island residents to take action. For more detailed information see this document.

Discussing Prospective US Relations with Yemen and Iran for the imminent Biden Administration

Hassan El-Tayyab, the lead lobbyist on Middle Eastern policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation will be joining us for a discussion on the prospects for U.S. relations with Iran and Yemen for the imminent Biden administration. The conversation will cover the following:

1. A brief history of U.S.-Iranian and U.S.-Yemeni relations
2. The current state of affairs
3. How these issues connect
4. Proposed policy recommendations
5. A discussion on how foreign policy relates to living in the state of RI

This event is intended to provide students with the tools needed to understand and influence foreign policy issues. To orient yourself on the topics we will be discussing, we recommend reading this op-ed written by Mr. El-Tayyab featured in Truthout.

Hassan El-Tayyab is FCNL’s (Friends Committee for National Legislation) lead lobbyist on Middle East policy. He is also responsible for representing FCNL with the various coalitions that work on these issues.

Prior to joining FCNL in August 2019, he was co-director of the national advocacy group Just Foreign Policy, where he led their lobbying work to advance a more progressive foreign policy in the Middle East and Latin America. He played a major role in the successful passage of the War Powers Resolution to end US military aid to the Saudi-UAE coalition’s war in Yemen.

His writings and commentaries have been featured in numerous news outlets, including BBC World News, The Hill, Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, The Intercept, and more. Hassan holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Rhode Island.

Please email us at brownwarwatch@brown.edu for a link to this virtual event on Tuesday January 19th at 7PM EST.

True Reform: Ending America’s Endless Wars & Investing in Our Communities.

Join us Tuesday January 12th from 7-8 pm

How do we transform US foreign policy so that it paves the way for less war abroad and greater social change and justice at home?

Brown War Watch, Brown’s peace/anti-war student group, invites you to join us for a discussion with Stephen Semler, Co-Founder of The Security Policy Reform Institute.

The SPRI is an independent, grassroots think tank that promotes a principled U.S. foreign policy that connects security practices abroad to Americans’ most pressing economic, social, and political needs at home: https://www.securityreform.org

After a short Q & A discussion with Brown War Watch, Stephen will answer your audience questions. We are looking forward to a rich and substantive discussion!

Please reach out to us at BrownWarWatch@brown.edu for a link to this virtual event.

Local Rhode Island Campaign in Support of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Brown War Watch brings your attention to a promising campaign organized by local Rhode Island peace activists to build awareness around a groundbreaking UN Treaty that will come into force on January 22, 2021.

As ICAN notes on their website:

On October 24, 2020, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons reached the required 50 states parties for its entry into force, after Honduras ratified just one day after Jamaica and Nauru submitted their ratifications…the treaty will enter into force, cementing a categorical ban on nuclear weapons, 75 years after their first use.

Sadly the US has not ratified the treaty. Peace activists must now work tirelessly for US ratification so that we may take a bold step toward a future free from the horror of nuclear weapons. Imagine that!

The local campaign plans to place placards about the UN Treaty on local RIPTA buses, and they have created a Gofundme page to raise money for this important initiative: here.

In an announcement to local peace networks, Rhode Island Peace activists write:

We are seeking your support to place Nuclear Disarmament placards on RIPTA buses. On July 7, 2017,  the United Nations passed a landmark treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons worldwide. This Treaty will take effect on January 22, 2021. But unfortunately, the United States has not supported, promoted, or signed this nuclear disarmament treaty. In order to garner public support for the U.N. Treaty, a coalition of Rhode Island peace groups … wishes to place promotional placards on RIPTA buses. But first, we must raise the money to pay for the placards. Our goal is to raise $10,000 for this purpose on GoFundMe. …we are grateful for any and all donations to this critical cause. Any amount will help us to raise awareness about the most urgent existential threat that currently faces humankind. Video presentation:
Please click the “Read More” button in order to see/hear all the information on the video.

Please visit the site – and if you are able to – please make a donation.

Call to Action: Block the UAE Weapon Sale

This week the Senate will vote on four joint resolutions intended to block a $23 billion weapons sale to the UAE.

We urge you all to contact your senators in support of these resolutions.

The UAE, along with Saudi and US intervention was responsible for creating the worst humanitarian crises on the planet in Yemen, and furthermore this weapon deal is designed to increase pressure on Iran.

From Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement announcing his authorization of the sales:

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran”.


BWW Discussion Meeting: Tuesday December 1st 2020

Brown War Watch will have our final meeting of the semester Tuesday at 7pm to discuss ongoing conflicts, developments in the military industrial complex, and pathways to peace.

As a graduate student group at Brown University, and in order to comply with university policy, our official meetings will resume in the second week of January. That being said, war and peace and the efforts surrounding them don’t stop for the holidays. If you are curious to learn more about what we’re doing or what we’re talking about always feel free to reach out to us at brownwarwatch@brown.edu or through our facebook or twitter.

All political and spiritual beliefs welcome, united in the quest for a more peaceful planet. End the Endless Wars!

Please email brownwarwatch@brown.edu for the Zoom link.


On Cuba and the US:
One of our members has graciously offered to present a bit on US-Cuba relations and History. Is Cuba a hapless country taken over by communists or an example of revolutionary resistance to American Imperialism? Through the presentation and following discussion we hope to all expand our understanding.

What does the Biden Cabinet mean for war and peace?
While there has been some criticism (Business InsiderJacobinScoopIn These Times) the worries of a hawkish cabinet are conspicuously absent from some US media (CNN [1,2], CNBC [1,2], Baltimore Sun). Is the incoming cabinet truly a return to an age of diplomacy that will make the world safer, or a harbinger of war and regime change to come?

Open floor – for any topic of discussion of concern or interest

BWW rewind: The Nuns, the Priests, and the Bomb

In February of last year Brown War Watch hosted a film screening of The Nuns, the Priests and the Bombs. This powerful documentary highlights the plowshares movement, and the daring group of Catholic anti-nuclear weapon activists that broke into a nuclear weapons facility in protest against these devastating weapons.

A description of the film from the website:

Are they criminals or prophets sending a wake-up call to the world?  

Since 1980, activists in lay and religious life have undertaken dramatic Plowshares protests, derived from the biblical injunction, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” incurring long prison sentences in an ongoing campaign to deter nuclear disaster.

A poster that advertised the event

Following the film screening was a panel featuring the film’s director, Helen Young, investigative journalist Alex Nunes, and activist Frida Berrigan. Check out the panel below:

Panel Following the film screening of The Nuns, the Priests, and the Bomb at Brown University in Feb 2019

Today, as we await the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to enter into force (after receiving the required number of ratifications in October), this film remains as relevant as ever. While the United States frequently flouts international weapons bans (such as the ban on cluster bombs) and international law (such as the repeated use of torture by the US on detained prisoners of war) this treaty provides a reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare and an opportunity to highlight the moral arguments against their use.

BWW Discussion Meeting: Tuesday November 23rd 2020

Brown War Watch meets online every Tuesday at 7pm to discuss ongoing conflicts, developments in the military industrial complex, and pathways to peace.

All political and spiritual beliefs welcome, united in the quest for a more peaceful planet. End the Endless Wars!

Please email brownwarwatch@brown.edu for the Zoom link.


The human costs of “the war on terror”
War crimes (WSJNBCNYT), civilian casualties (InterceptAirwars), and displaced peoples (NYT)

Discussion question: To what extent are we as citizens responsible for the war crimes committed by our governments, intelligence agencies, and militaries?

A Trump phenomenon or the status quo?
On the Trump administration relationship with Israel (NYTWashington Post) and Saudi Arabia (The NationPBS).
On the Obama administration relationship with Israel (Reuters) and Saudi Arabia (ReutersPolitico)

Discussion question: Is the portrayal of the uniqueness of Trump’s support for violent governments fact, fiction, or something in between?

Open floor – for any topic of discussion of concern or interest