Turkey: End Ankara Ban on LGBTI Events

February 14, 2019 12:00AM EST

Governor Extends Restrictions Beyond State of Emergency

(Berlin) – The ban in Turkey's capital Ankara on public events focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues discriminates against LGBTI people and violates their fundamental rights, and should therefore be immediately lifted, Human Rights Watch said today.

The ban was originally imposed in November 2017 for an indefinite period under Turkey’s state of emergency, but even though emergency rule ended in July 2018, the Ankara governor’s office has not lifted the ban. Instead, on October 3, the governor’s office informed law enforcement and other authorities that it remained in force, gave no indication of when it would end, and extended the ban to LGBTI-focused events generally, not just those organized by LGBTI associations.

All public LGBTI-related discussions are banned in Ankara province.

“The Ankara governor should immediately end his ban on public events organized by the LGBTI community and their allies,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Ankara authorities have a duty to protect the rights of LGBTI groups and imposing such arbitrary bans is an outrageous effort to further stigmatize and marginalize LGBTI people.”

The Ankara governor’s office initially imposed an indefinite ban on November 18, 2017, on activities by various civil society organizations under the name of LGBTT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or transvestite) and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) such as “film and other screenings, theater plays, panels, talks, exhibitions etc. which touch on certain social sensibilities and sensitivities.” It is the only ban of its kind in Turkey.

The Ankara governor’s alleged justification for the ban are “social sensitivities,” the risk of LGBTI events “inciting hatred and enmity,” and a “clear and imminent risk to public security” that allegedly necessitates the ban to “prevent crimes being committed,” “protect public health and morality,” and “protect other people’s rights and freedoms.” Human Rights Watch rejects such claims as wholly unfounded. They reflect an anti-LGBTI bias and fail to establish a legitimate purpose or need for the ban, as required under international law.

On January 21, 2019, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ankara governor seeking comments on the continuing ban but at this writing had not received a response.

Turkey’s government imposed numerous bans on public assemblies during the state of emergency, but such a total and apparently indefinite ban is unique, Human Rights Watch said.

LGBTI groups told Human Rights Watch that the Ankara governor’s ban came about after an anti-LGBTI social media campaign on Twitter targeting a screening event organized by the German Embassy and the transgender rights group Pink Life LGBTT Solidarity Association (Pink Life) in Ankara. A week earlier, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had criticized the Republican People’s Party, the largest opposition party in parliament, for a requirement to include LGBTI candidates in one local municipality, calling it immoral, outrageous, and a war against national values.

The Ankara governor’s office stated that it had decided to impose the ban after learning from social and print media that LGBTI groups were planning various public events, such as film screenings and panels. The governor’s office cited the Law on Provincial Administration, the Law on Assemblies and Public Demonstrations, and the State of Emergency Law as the legal basis for the ban.

Article 11/c of the Law on Provincial Administration provides that the governor must maintain “peace and security” in the province. Article 17 of the Law on Assemblies and Public Demonstrations permits the governor to postpone public assemblies for a month on the grounds of national security, public order, public health, and public morality, or the protection of other people’s rights and freedoms. The law permits the governor to ban assemblies altogether if there is a “near and imminent threat” of a crime being committed. Under article 11/f of the State of Emergency, broadcasts of all kinds can be banned in the interest of preserving general security, law and order, public order, and preventing violence.

The governor’s office has not explained why LGBTI-themed events constitute a near and imminent threat that could reasonably justify their ban.

Activists only became aware of the October 2018 extension of the ban when the student group Middle East Technical University (METU) LGBTI+ Solidarity scheduled its first event of the new academic year on October 9. The university administration informed the group that they could not hold the event because of the continuing ban.

Representatives of LGBTI organizations told Human Rights Watch that the ban adds to the stigmatization and marginalization of LGBTI people and makes them vulnerable to attacks. The ban casts LGBTI people as criminals and a threat to public values, which leads to their isolation, they said. They said that the restriction meant the loss of platforms to reach new generations and opportunities to share their expertise with public institutions and to create change in cooperation with the local authorities.

The Ankara ban violates Turkey’s international obligations to respect and protect rights to equality before the law and freedom of peaceful expression and association, which are also protected under the Turkish Constitution. As a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Turkey is obligated to take necessary measures to enable peaceful assemblies to take place. The ban violates that obligation, among many others. The European Court of Human Rights has without exception found in dozens of cases that bans on LGBTI marches, whether on grounds of morals, health, or security, violate the convention. Addressing laws that seek to prevent public discussion of LGBTI issues as the Ankara ban does, the court has said that “above all by adopting such laws the authorities reinforce stigma and prejudice and encourage homophobia, which is incompatible with the notions of equality, pluralism and tolerance inherent in a democratic society.”

As a Council of Europe member, Turkey should adhere to its standards to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity and should not misuse legal and administrative provisions to impose unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly on grounds of public health, public morality, and public order. In a letter sent to the Turkish government in September 2018, five UN human rights experts expressed their “serious concern at the recent indefinite ban on public LGBTI-related gatherings or events in Ankara.” In their response letter on November 7, 2018, Turkish authorities wrote that they acted in compliance with domestic law and clauses of international agreements Turkey is a party to.

“Banning non-violent events with baseless claims and criminalizing citizens in the eyes of the wider society is not the act of a rights-respecting state, and it causes nothing but further intimidation for LGBTI groups legally operating around the country,” Williamson said. “Everyone has the right to peaceful association and assembly regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.”

For more details on implications of the ban and details of the interviews, please see below.

Scope of Banned Events in Ankara

Human Rights Watch talked to six activists and three lawyers from LGBTI organizations in Ankara – Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association (Kaos GL), Pink Life (Pembe Hayat), and METU LGBTI+ Solidarity (ODTÜ LGBTIi+ Dayanışması) – about their efforts to get the ban lifted and its impact on their work. These are among the oldest LGBTI groups in Turkey. Kaos GL in 2005 became the first officially recognized organization focused on sexual orientation and gender identity in Turkey, after publishing a magazine and organizing other activities stretching back to 1994. Pink Life, established in 2006, is the first transgender-led rights organization in Turkey. METU LGBTI+ Solidarity has been active on the campus of the METU for over 20 years.

Kaos and Pink Life have appealed the ban in court. None of these organizations have received any response to their requests for an appointment with the governor’s office.

One of the first events affected by the ban was Pink Life’s three-day Transgender Day of Remembrance program, scheduled for November 18-20, 2017. Pink Life later also had to cancel its six-day QueerFest Film Festival in January 2018. In solidarity, other LGBTI organizations simultaneously screened QueerFest films in seven other cities in Turkey. Pink Life was also forced to cancel an event planned around International Sex Workers Rights Day on March 3, 2018 and instead broadcasted it online.

To avoid the ban, Pink Life moved its November 20, 2018 Transgender Day of Remembrance Program to Istanbul. Pink Life has been forced to suspend its Ankara-based monthly events such as coming-out talks, family meetings, trans men and women breakfasts, transition talks, and masculinity workshops, which aim to provide social space for sexual and gender minorities.

Kaos GL cancelled eight events. Among them was a conference with international speakers, as well as symposiums and workshops to which public officials had been invited to discuss law and the role of local authorities. The organization’s lawyer said the group had stopped planning events since May 2018 to avoid any risk.

Among many official LGBTI student clubs in Ankara universities, only METU LGBTI+ Solidarity has actively attempted to continue organizing public events and demonstrations. Özgür Gür, a member of the group, said that the first event affected was a film screening by a women’s group on November 22, 2017. To stop the screening from taking place in a cafeteria, the university administration cut off the electricity to the whole dormitory building. Dozens of university security officers attempted to prevent another film screening by METU LGBTI+ Solidarity on November 24, 2017, and the university again cut off electricity. The university administration opened disciplinary proceedings against more than 30 students who took part in the event.

The university administration also prevented METU LGBTI+ Solidarity from holding a December 2017 World AIDS Day event, as well as several “LGBTI+ 101” events at the start of semesters. In May 2018, the administration disrupted an event offering LGBTI students the chance to share personal stories by turning on water sprinklers to force people to move off the green space where it was taking place. Also in May, the university administration hastily painted over a rainbow painted on a wall and attempted to halt a Queer Salsa Workshop by closing  the university stadium where it was due to take place.

When METU LGBTI+ Solidarity tried to hold a Pride march in May 2018 under the slogan “Ban All Bans,” the university did not want the march to take place outdoors on the campus grounds, instead offering closed sites such as lecture halls and a conference center. Anti-terrorism police barred the way for students who flouted the ban and began to march. The university subsequently started disciplinary proceedings against 28 students who joined the march.

While students are often not punished as a result of such disciplinary proceedings, Özgür Gür from the METU LGBTI+ solidarity told Human Rights Watch that students see these proceedings as intimidation and punitive attempts to stop them from peacefully exercising their rights.

On July 6, 2018, several students opened a banner during the rector’s graduation ceremony speech to protest his treatment of LGBTI students. In response, the Ankara prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into 13 students. On July 8, police detained the representative for METU LGBTI+ Solidarity, Özgür Gür, and held him for a day before releasing him. While a case file was opened against him, it is subject to a confidentiality order, so no information is available about the progress of the case.

The Ankara governor also prohibited a planned screening of the film “Pride” on June 28 by Communist LGBTIs, the LGBTI working group of the Turkish Communist Party.

On May 29, the Ankara Bar Association’s Human Rights Center tried to screen eight short movies under the title “Short Queer Films Selection from Turkey.” The Ankara governor banned the event, issuing a special decision on the day it was to take place. The Pink Life lawyer, Emrah Şahin, said that two buses of police officers from the rapid response force were parked in front of the Bar Association building, threatening to intervene if the event took place. Lawyers protested the ban by standing outside the building in view of the law enforcement officers and collectively watching another short movie on their cell phones which was not among those listed for the screening.

The Ankara Bar Association has challenged the governor’s decision in the Ankara 13th Administrative Court. In December, it announced the establishment of its own LGBTIQ+ Rights Centre.

Legal Fight with No End: Pink Life and Kaos GL Cases

During the state of emergency, Pink Life and Kaos GL both unsuccessfully filed separate cases before local administrative courts seeking to annul the ban. Appeals by both organizations are ongoing. In April 2018, Kaos GL also applied to the Constitutional Court for an injunction, which is pending.

Both organizations’ lawyers said that they have experienced unreasonable delays in the legal process and believe the delays, and the fact that the courts have not suspended the ban pending the outcome of the case, indicate they are not giving proper consideration to the harm of ban on LGBTI organizations.

On November 20, 2018, Kaos GL began a new legal challenge at the Ankara Administrative Court on the grounds that the state of emergency had ended in July and could no longer be invoked in justification of the ban. Kaos GL requested the annulment of the October notification.

However, on November 27, the Ankara 2nd Administrative Court rejected the case, asserting that the court could not investigate the October 3 internal correspondence from the Ankara governor to Ankara local administration and law enforcement offices, and thus could not consider whether the ban violated the rights of the complainant. Kaos GL appealed the ruling to the Ankara Regional Administrative Court. The appeal is pending.

Implications of the Ankara LGBTI Ban

The activists interviewed said that the ban aims to undermine their existence, hamstring activism, create a climate of fear for the wider LGBTI community, and stigmatize them by spreading a perception that LGBTI people are criminal and immoral.

“The fact that LGBTI organizations cannot hold events means an LGBTI person cannot enjoy basic rights in Ankara,” said Yıldız Tar from Kaos GL, adding that many of the sorts of activities that were banned were a necessary platform for LGBTI people to get mental health support or legal remedies when their rights are violated. “The fact that we cannot physically realize our regular politics and activities which draw new generations into activism and support them has called a halt to our movement,” said Esra Özban, the coordinator of Pink Life’s QueerFest event.

Şırvan Çelikkaleli from Pink Life described an incident in which police officers attempted to prevent the association from holding an event for new university students, causing the group to move the event and later cancel it, as they felt they could not guarantee everyone’s safety. She said this intimidates younger people, inhibiting them from joining LGBTI organizations and being part of the movement.

The ban has set back efforts to build trust between transgender people and public institutions and has undermined years of work to achieve communication with local administrations, public institutions, and other human rights organizations, Pink Life activists said.

Emrah Şahin, Pink Life’s lawyer, said that after the ban announcement, Pink Life faced challenges recruiting and retaining staff members and interns, and that some experienced activists moved abroad to seek asylum.

Kaos GL’s lawyer, Kerem Dikmen, said that while the ban does not alter the legal status of associations, it does leave them unable to fulfill their mandates. Dikmen said the groups had to minimize risk to their legal status by becoming less visible.

Interviewees said that they were concerned that the ban might serve as a precedent for further restrictions on freedom of association, assembly, and expression, and that areas of work by activists beyond LGBTI rights could be affected. They said that the ban should be an issue of concern to all civil society groups, not just those working on LGBTI issues.

The ban in Turkey’s capital city has also seems to have had a chilling effect on the activities of LGBTI groups around the country. Administration and law enforcement authorities in other cities have on occasion banned LGBTI events. Shortly after the Ankara ban came into force, in Bursa, police ordered the cancelation of Özgür Renkler (Colors of Freedom) LGBTI Association’s film screening on the 2017 Transgender Day of Remembrance. The Beyoğlu district governor on November 25, 2017 postponed and, on January 12, 2018, banned Queer Shorts movie screenings organized by QueerFest of Pink Life in cooperation with the British Council and the Pera Museum.

European Court of Human Rights on LGBTI-Targeted Bans

The European Court of Human Rights has issued more than a half dozen judgments relating to over 60 applications to the court over bans on LGBTI-related marches or events (See e.g Bączkowski and Others v. Poland, Genderdoc-M v. Moldova, Identoba and Others v. Georgia, Lashmankin and Others v. Russia Alekseyev and Others v. Russia). In all cases, the court found a violation of the convention, in particular, article 11 on freedom of assembly and article 14 on protection from discrimination.

The court roundly rejected arguments that the bans were necessary for public security, or to prevent crime, protect the rights of others, or protect morals. The court emphasized that governments had the duty to take reasonable and appropriate measures to enable the applicants to hold their march peacefully.

In its examination of the Russian anti-gay propaganda law, in Bayev and Others v. Russia, the court rejected Russia’s arguments to justify laws to limit public discourse, including events, about LGBTI issues on the grounds of protecting children. The court found not only that “the very purpose of the laws and the way they were formulated and applied were discriminatory” and “served no legitimate public interest” but also that “by adopting such laws the authorities had reinforced stigma and prejudice and encouraged homophobia,” which was incompatible with the values of a democratic society. The same applies to the Ankara ban.

The court had also found previously that Turkey had violated the right to freedom of expression of Kaos GL when authorities seized and confiscated all the copies of an issue of its magazine and brought criminal proceedings against the association’s president and the magazine’s editor-in-chief. The court rejected the government’s claim that the measures were necessary to protect the morals of children.

Associated documents