The case of Muharrem Erbey is in one respect unique; being prosecuted for speaking in the Swedish Parliament is not common. It was at a seminar in the parliament in September 2009 that the HR lawyer and author criticized the fact that thousands of children have been arrested for participating in political demonstrations and been given long-term prison sentences. According to Turkish law such utterances, frequent in the Swedish Parliament’s debates concerning various regimes, can be punishable as defamation of the nation.
As Erbey after his arrest in December 2009 bears witness of his situation in prison – still without a sentence – his voice is urgent. How can Turkey combine their economic progress with a modernized constitution agreeing with the political values that are presumed to apply to member states of European unions?
This is also the question the Swedish parliament’s Amnesty group, with support from almost all parties, poses in a letter to the Turkish Interior Minister Atalay. In the letter we call attention to the fact that Turkey is submitted to conventions concerning political rights in the UN and the Council of Europe that give the Turkish people the right to freedom of speech and assembly. Thus the matter is not only the questioned Turkish EU membership, but promises given by other organs as well.
Implementations in current day Turkey are in violation of these commitments, in the case of Erbey and thousands of others. There is, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs puts it in their official estimate, “a tendency to protect the state rather than protecting the individual from state injustices”. Among other things, the freedom of speech can still “be restricted with regard to the state integrity. It is no longer forbidden to publish material in other languages than Turkish, but publishing material that threatens the state’s integrity can lead to prosecution, publications may end up being confiscated, and periodicals discontinued … Prime Minister Erdogan has exhorted boycott of some newspapers he values less credible. More than 5 000 websites are blocked by court order.”
So far, the Turkish “excuse” has been that the parliamentary elections must take place before the constitution has been updated and the power of the Kemalist military finally has been severed. After the success of Prime Minister Erdogan’s AK Party and the continued purge in the military, it is time for the government to act. The increasing representation of Kurdish members of the parliament indicates that the present repression must come to an end. International human rights conventions also apply to Kurds in Turkey.
Erdogan’s speech on the night of the election on how the coming constitution will respect everybody’s rights is binding. A repeal of the paragraphs that breach the freedom of speech would be a step away from the nationalism and lacking rule of law that threatens Turkey’s position in the Western World.
But it remains to be seen what a speech like that is worth. Those who were in Strasbourg in April and witnessed the contempt Erdogan at a public appearance poured over critics in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will doubt until the contrary is proved. According to Erdogan, Turkey did not need advice from the rest of the world, there were no political prisoners in Turkey, and if there were any, they were all bomb throwers.
In the case of Erbey, the HR lawyer and author runs the risk of becoming a new Dawit Isaak. Is this really the image of Turkey the leaders of a triumphant nation want to give off?