In an open letter to President Obama today, a number of rights organizations expressed their concern with the continuing human rights situation in Turkey, specifically calling on the administration to take a stronger hand with Prime Minister Erdogan.
As the bridge between East and West, and a member of both the EU and NATO, Turkey is a valuable ally to the US in the Muslim world. But a number of drastic new laws make Turkey look less like the democracy it bills itself as, and more like just another oppressive regime in an increasingly volatile region.
The letter to Obama illuminates fears that Turkey's progress toward democracy and freedom has "stalled and in some crucial areas regressed."
There are a number of problems with Turkey in regards to rights, but these are the most pressing.
Turkey is the number one jailer of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, and has reached a record high of imprisoned journalists, at 232 people.
The RIGHTS blog has previously reported on this situation, and the irony of Prime Minister Erdogan himself being a one-time victim of government censorship. However, his past seems to have no bearing at all on the present. Jailing journalists for everything from pro-Kurdish columns to alleged blasphemy, the Turkish government has no plans to end the madness.
More from GlobalPost: Turkey targeting journalists and pro-Kurdish media, says CPJ
Erdogan said in September after riots broke out across the Muslim world against the trailer for the film "Innocence of Muslims" that Turkey was looking to "lead the world" in domestic anti-blasphemy laws.
"His administration’s campaign against critical commentators has transformed a once-lively press environment into one marked by widespread self-censorship," said Freedom House's Arch Puddington in a column in September. "In such hands, an international blasphemy law would only add a veneer of religious virtue to an existing pattern of hostility toward free expression."
For one, Erdogan has straight-up said into a microphone, "I don't believe in equality between men and women." He is the driving force behind limiting legal and safe abortions in Turkey, as well as access to safe reproductive health in general. And as far as sexual violence against women, many women's rights advocacy groups see Turkey as a dark and unfriendly place.
"For women in Turkey who are victims of domestic or sexual violence, there are few doors to knock on. There are few women's shelters, and too often society tends to judge the victim, not the perpetrator," wrote Turkish columnist Elif Shafak in the Guardian in September.
Despite this grim situation, and the dissolution of the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs and its replacement by the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, a strong women's movement is afoot.
Women have rallied for better abortion laws, female members are regularly elected to parliament, and leaders like Canan Arin, who is facing trial for speaking out against child marriages, aren't deterred.
"The Prime Minister is against feminist women and expresses this stand at every opportunity," Arin said in an interview last year. "But we do not care what he says, he cannot stop us. Women’s NGOs work very hard."
Turkey has become one of the world's worst places for internet freedom. Human Rights Watch reports that 22,536 sites are currently blocked in the country, including Google and file sharing sites like last.fm, under controversial Internet Law 5651, which hands control of the web over to the Telecommunications Directorate with essentially no oversight.
The government applies "broad, clumsy bans on any content that might possibly be objectionable," says Amnesty International, noting that the Directorate has a list of 138 “illegal words," that will get a site banned if used in the URL, including but not limited to: "gay," "confidential," "confession," "local," "blonde" and… "free."
In December, the government was fined 7,500 euros by the European Court of Human Rights after the court ruled in favor of a blogger whose personal Google-hosted site was blocked in a landmark case, Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey.
“The court has sent a strong message that wholesale blocking of Internet services is arbitrary, overbroad, and violates freedom of expression online,” said Cynthia Wong, senior researcher on Internet and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch.
It's not clear if there has been a shift in policy since the Dec. 18 verdict, but rights groups around the world agree that a lack of government transparency and apparently arbitrary blocking system is a serious violation of freedom of expression.
Headscarves have been banned in Turkey since the 1920s, despite the country's overwhelmingly Muslim population. In November, a ban on wearing the hijab in schools was lifted, but it's still illegal for women who work in the public sector to wear the traditional Muslim head covering.
In 2010, the ban on wearing scarves at universities was lifted after years of protests and in 2008 the ban was lifted for students in religious schools. However, the ban still holds for women in public sector jobs. Educators, lawyers, members of parliament, doctors and anyone working on state land can be fired from their job for wearing a hijab, a requirement for Muslim women.
More from GlobalPost: Muslim nations push for international blasphemy law
The head of Turkey's Organization of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People, Ahmed Faruk Unsal, called the ban a violation of human rights in December during a radio interview, and noted that despite campaign promises, the government has shied away from addressing the issue.
Civil Labor unions have begun an online petition this week to ask the government to lift the ban and many union members wore a hijab to work in November in an act of defiance, according to union president Ahmet Gündoğdu in an article Thursday in Turkish news agency World Bulletin.
"A report prepared by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) in November revealed that 76.3 percent of people in Turkey think head-scarved women should be able to work in the public sector," reported World Bulletin, noting that advocates of lifting the ban are hoping the issue will be included in a new draft of the country's constitution, which is presently being written in parliament.
The Kurdish minority
Ethnic Kurds make up about 15 to 20% of Turkey's population, and they are notoriously badly treated, disenfranchised, arbitrarily arrested and discriminated against. Political leaders are also regularly assassinated, and according to the Guardian, there have been at least 45,000 deaths related to the dispute between Turks and Kurds since the 1980s.
Considering the execution of three extremist Kurdish leaders in Paris this week, it's safe to say that despite recent peace negotiations between Kurdish political group the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Erdogan, everything is up in the air.
More from GlobalPost: PKK founder among 3 Kurdish women found executed in central Paris
Embattled Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad also relinquished Kurdish land to the PKK this summer, angering Ankara and forcing Turkey to attack, which resulted in a particularly bloody summer for the pro-Kurd movement.
It's unclear what the future holds, but the status quo has been forced disappearances, murder and intimidation of Kurdish people, according to an in-depth report by Human Rights Watch in September.