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Council of Europe warns of 'chilling' risk to Turkey freedoms

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(ANKARA) - The Council of Europe warned Tuesday that Turkish police action against non-violent demonstrators during the wave of anti-government protests in June could have a "chilling effect" on freedoms in a country seeking to join the European Union.

Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, also voiced concern about the state of media freedom in the country, in an interview with AFP after the publication of a report on Turkey.

"The police's handling of demonstrations in Turkey exposes once again the long-standing, serious human rights problem of the misconduct of law enforcement officials in the country," Muiznieks said in his report after a fact-finding visit to Turkey in July.

What began as a peaceful environmentalist campaign against plans to demolish Istanbul's Gezi Park, one of the city's last major green spots, snowballed into three weeks of nationwide protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The police crackdown was often heavy-handed and clashes left at least six people dead and 8,000 injured.

"It is time for the Turkish police to improve their record of compliance with human rights standards," said Muiznieks.

Overall, an estimated 2.5 million people took to the streets to demand the resignation of Erdogan, who after 11 years in office is seen by many as an increasingly authoritarian leader trying to force his Islamic values on the staunchly secular country.

"In no circumstances can human rights violations committed by (law enforcement officials) be tolerated or encouraged," Muiznieks said, adding that all allegations against police needed to be investigated and those guilty punished.

He said he was deeply concerned that doctors, lawyers, academics, students, unions and journalists became the target of investigations, fines or dismissals because of their non-violent action during the protests.

"I am particularly worried about the chilling effect that these measures could have on free assembly and expression, as well as on media freedom."

The report by the pan-European rights body was issued just three weeks after the EU resumed membership talks with Turkey, ending a 40-month freeze.

Muiznieks warned the Turkish authorities to refrain from any measures that could be perceived as "reprisals" against peaceful demonstrators or their sympathisers.

Turkey has a poor record on media freedom, and the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists last year blacklisted the country as the leading jailer of journalists.

Rights groups say the situation has deteriorated since the June protests, with journalists covering the street clashes reportedly becoming frequent targets of police abuse.

Dozens of journalists seen as critical of the government have been sacked or compelled to resign, according to the Turkish journalists' union.

"We remain very concerned about the situation of media freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey," Muiznieks told AFP.

"We continue to receive reports of self-censorship, fear and pressure against media who are trying to do their job," he said, urging the government to take "more vigorous action" to address the grievances.

A top Turkish judge on Monday also launched a strident attack at what he described as government efforts to manipulate the media.

"Attempts to silence the media for commercial or political purposes are increasing the importance of the media regarding freedoms in a democratic system," said Constitutional Court deputy chief Alparslan Altan.

Anti-government activists have denounced what they say is the submissive attitude of many media outlets to Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).


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