ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday his government would strengthen rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression in Turkey under an “action plan” that critics said failed to address real concerns about an erosion of human rights.
Part of long-promised moves towards legal and economic reform, the plan would also improve the judicial system and form the first step towards a new constitution, he said.
Erdogan, who has faced accusations at home and abroad of increasingly autocratic rule over his NATO member country, said no one could be deprived of freedom because of their thoughts.
He spelled out few specific measures but instead listed principles to improve the judicial system in areas ranging from nationalisation of land and trials of minors to steps to ensure a speedy trial and ease conditions for business.
The government was reviewing prosecutions of crimes related to the press and internet, Erdogan said. Turkey is regularly singled out by media rights groups as one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.
“Improving freedom of expression, organisation and religion…is the goal we have so far worked the hardest on,” Erdogan told ministers and other government official at the presidential palace in Ankara.
“We will not water every flower we see. While watering a flower with its head bent means justice, watering a thorn means cruelty,” he said, suggesting corrective actions should be selective to ensure genuine offenders should not be exonerated.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey Director for Human Rights Watch, said the plan did not tackle the issues of arbitrary detentions, prosecutions and convictions without evidence in Turkey.
“This is a country where tens of thousands of people are jailed under terrorism laws who should never have been jailed, or should not even be prosecuted,” she said. Issues like “gross misuse” of terrorism laws should have been addressed, she added.
Until such prisoners are released and “bogus” charges for dissenting opinion are dropped, “no human rights action plan is going to be more than the paper it is written on,” Sinclair-Webb told Reuters. “Just saying the courts are going to be more independent won’t make them more independent.”
Turkey has ignored rulings by the European Court of Human Rights for the immediate release of high profile philanthropist Osman Kavala, jailed more than three years without conviction, and Selahattin Demirtas, former leader of Turkey’s third largest party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
The court, whose rulings are legally binding, says such detentions violate human rights and only serve to limit pluralism and political debate.
Erdogan added on Tuesday that a committee would be set up to observe human rights conditions in prisons and that a human rights report on Turkey would be published annually.
Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP, said the government was trying to fix the same human rights violations it had committed.
Critics say Erdogan’s government applies political pressure on the judiciary, which has been bent on punishing thousands of the government’s perceived opponents since a failed military coup in 2016. Ankara says Turkish courts are independent and it has acted in the face of threats to the country.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Dominic Evans)