The Middle East

Protests Continue as Students from Prestigious Istanbul University Fight Erdoğan’s Appointment of New Rector

By: Phyllis Duffy

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Protests erupt as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appoints Melih Bulu as the new rector at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Bulu is a businessman known for his links to President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The decision to appoint Bulu was condemned by university members and construed “as a government attempt to infiltrate one of the country’s last left-leaning institutions.” Bulu is the first rector selected from outside Boğaziçi University’s community since Turkey’s 1980 military coup.

Turkish Police forcefully detaining a demonstrator during protests against President Erdoğan’s rector appointment. Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch and Murat Baykara/Sipa via AP Images.

Under AKP rule, Turkish institutions and society are “on a firmly religious and socially conservative path.” President Erdoğan hopes to raise a “pious generation;” however, younger people are snubbing his vision for the future of Turkey. This is due to the overwhelming lack of employment younger people, especially new graduates, are facing.

Can Selçuki, general manager of the consultancy Istanbul Economics Research, addressed why he believes the younger generations are resisting. Selçuki argues that younger people are “independent and articulate, and they know what they want.” With this, he argues that there has been “a shift away from the identity politics that currently define so much of the political sphere.” Today, Turkish people want the government to provide them with assistance and do not care which politician provides these services.

What started as a peaceful protest back in January 2021 — faculty members and students standing silently, socially distanced, and with their backs turned on the rector’s office —quickly turned into arrests and the use of excessive force by the police. 

Since the demonstration started, around 700 protesters have been detained,  many of which have since been released. The majority of those arrested have been students “marking one of the biggest displays of civil unrest in Turkey since the 2013 Gezi Park movement.” Five of these detainees were students who were arrested for carrying LGBTQ flags. On April 1, police violently arrested thirty-five students. Images of the April 1st events depict police grabbing students’ throats and throwing them to the ground. As time progresses, the violence towards the protesters has become increasingly more violent.

Erdoğan said “his government would not allow the Boğaziçi protests to spiral out of control,” referring to demonstrators as “terrorists and LGBT youth.”  He believes that the protesters are working against the government’s “national and spiritual values.”  A fourth-year political science student, Behren Evlice, explained how the students and young people of Turkey are furious because “[t]he state has attacked [them] with the police and violence.” He continued to explain that students simply want their opinions to be taken into consideration when talking about their university.

With no end in sight, police have placed a barricade at the university’s entrance, but this has not stopped protesters from moving towards the rector’s office.  In response to these events, more protests are being called for throughout Turkey in support of the students.

For further information, please see:

BBC NEWS – Turkey’s Erdogan denounces LGBT youth as police arrest students – 2 Feb. 2021

Human Rights Watch – Turkey Resumes its Crackdown on Student Protesters – 2 Apr. 2021

Human Rights Watch – Turkey: Student Protesters at Risk of Prosecution – 18 Feb. 2021

Reuters – Turkey detains 50 more people after university protests – 26 Mar. 2021

The Guardian – Student protests grow as Turkey’s young people turn against Erdoğan – 4 Feb. 2021

The NY Times – Prestigious Istanbul University Fights Erdogan’s Reach – 1 Feb. 2021


Education Crisis: Syrian Refugee Students Denied Access to Learning

By: Chiara Carni

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium – A ministerial conference on Supporting Syria and the Region was held on March 30, 2021 in Brussels. Many argued that this conference should focus on the unprecedented education crisis facing Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. Before the COVID-19 school closure, only 42 percent of the 660,000 school-age Syrian children in Lebanon were going to school. There has been a substantial drop since COVID-19, with the number now resting at 190,000 Syrian children while another 25,000 who should have re-enrolled or entered grade 1 have not. Fewer than one percent of Syrian children complete grade 9.

Less than half of the school-aged refugee children in Lebanon are in formal education. Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

The Education Ministry announced its official shift to distance learning in March 2020. The Ministry announced that it would publish a distance learning strategy in August, but has failed to do so. Additionally, it has not established any clear plans for school re-openings. The cause for this dramatic drop in enrollment stems from many reasons, including restrictions on education. In many cases, refugee children cannot attend school because their families cannot afford transportation or because public schools have refused to enroll them.  Schools have refused to allow Syrian children to take mandatory exams if they fail to prove legal residency in Lebanon, which is required beginning at age 15. Unfortunately, approximately 70 percent of Syrians cannot qualify or afford to provide this proof.

During the summer of 2020, the Education Ministry forced the closure of nine unlicensed private schools. The schools provided education to approximately 5,000 Syrian students, and in return, the Ministry only provided spaces at public schools for 800 students. Two humanitarian groups paid for 3,000 children to enroll at private schools, leaving 1,200 students still unenrolled by the closure. Because of the financial toll COVID-19 has put on Lebanese families, 70 percent of Lebanese children previously enrolled in private schools are now enrolled in public schools. This transfer has left almost 40,000 fewer spaces for Syrian children.

Donors pay Lebanon for each Syrian refugee child enrolled in school and pay school fees for Lebanese children. As of 2020, humanitarian funding has decreased from 1.3 billion dollars to 944 million dollars. This decrease can expect to continue if the participants contributing to the funding refuse their pledges. This decrease, coupled with the Education Ministry’s refusal to run back-to-school campaigns to promote enrollment, has contributed to the education crisis at hand.

An insufficient number of Syrian refugee children have access to the technology necessary for their education. In 2018, donors provided funds to the UN to purchase laptops for public schools. These laptops were never distributed to the students. The import company falsely claimed that 2,335 of the laptops had been destroyed in the Beirut port explosion while, instead, the laptops were sold to private buyers. Unaffordable cost of data, little internet access, and the lack of technology devices have limited Syrian children’s online access.

For further information, please see:

Executive Magazine – Lebanon’s experience with distance learning – 11 June 2020

Human Rights Watch – Lebanon: Action Needed on Syrian Refugee Education Crisis – 26 Mar. 2021

The 961 – A Company Sold Donated Laptops That Were Supposed To Go To Schools In Lebanon – 8 Feb. 2021

ICC Closes Preliminary Examination into War Crimes Committed by British Troops in Iraq

By: Rebecca Buchanan

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – On December 9, 2020, the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) closed the preliminary examination into alleged war crimes committed by British troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2008. The Prosecutor’s decision to close this examination marks an end to a long and tumultuous push for justice by Iraqi civilians and international human rights organizations.

British Troops in Iraq during Operation Telic. Photo Courtesy of Anadolu Agency.

The preliminary examination into the situation in Iraq was filed in 2004 but was closed by the ICC on February 9, 2006, when it failed to unearth a sufficient number of claims to meet the gravity threshold of the Rome Statute. The requirements of the gravity threshold established in Article 17(1)(d) of the Rome Statute are indistinct. Historically, the Court has considered whether the alleged conduct is systematic or large scale, the number and severity of the complaints, and the position of the persons or institutions responsible for the harm.

On May 13, 2014, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced the re-opening of the Iraq/United Kingdom examination after reports from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) alleged that the detainee abuse, rape, and torture by British troops in Iraq was widespread and systematic. In its 2017 Report on Preliminary Examination Activities, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor announced that the examination had yielded enough evidence to believe that members of the British armed forces had committed war crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction against Iraqi civilians in their custody.

The Final Report on the Situation in Iraq/UK issued by the Office of the Prosecutor on December 9, 2020 affirmed the findings of the 2017 report. The Prosecutor underscored the believability of the allegations of willful killing, murder, torture, cruel and inhumane treatment, and rape and sexual violence by British forces against Iraqi detainees. The Final Report highlighted the failure of the British Government to effectively address these reports at the time of the alleged offenses and noted the Army’s “lack of genuine effort” to carry out active investigations during the conflict. The report stated that ongoing national efforts to investigate and prosecute these crimes were largely insufficient.

According to the Prosecutor, the decision to close the preliminary examination was an issue of the charter, not of the sufficiency of evidence. The Rome Statute allows the ICC to pursue an investigation only if evidence shows that no relevant proceedings have been undertaken by the responsible nation, or that proceedings have been disingenuous as a result of the Nation’s unwillingness to prosecute or its desire to protect perpetrators from justice. Although the nature, severity, and prevalence of the crimes committed by British troops fell within the ICC’s jurisdiction, the Prosecutor could not find sufficient evidence that the United Kingdom was disingenuous or obstructionist in its domestic proceedings.

This decision has angered the international community. Human Rights Watch said the decision not to open an investigation would “fuel perceptions of an ugly double standard in justice, with one approach for powerful states and quite another for those with less clout.” Amnesty International called the decision a “road-map for obstructionism” that “rewards bad faith and delays” in the prosecution of war crimes. In the conclusion of the Final Report, the ICC Prosecutor noted that although the UK’s domestic legal process fell short of unwillingness or disingenuity, there “continue to be areas of concern.”

For further information, please see:

Amnesty International – ICC Decision on UK Military in Iraq Rewards Obstructionism – 10 Dec. 2020

Human Rights Watch – United Kingdom: ICC Prosecutor Ends Scrutiny of Iraq Abuses – 10 Dec. 2020

International Crimes Database – Gravity Threshold Before the International Criminal Court: An Overview of the Court’s Practice – Jan. 2016

International Criminal Court – Preliminary Examination Iraq/UK Closed – 9 Dec. 2020

International Criminal Court – Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, Re-opens the Preliminary Examination of the Situation in Iraq – 13 May 2014

International Criminal Court – Situation in Iraq/UK Final Report – 9 Dec. 2020

Universal Jurisdiction: Germany’s Conviction of Syrian Officer for Crimes Against Humanity

By: Lauren Della Stua

Impunity Watch Staff Writer 

KOBLENZ, Germany – On February 24, 2021, in the first case of its kind, a German court sentenced a Syrian intelligence officer to four and a half years imprisonment for aiding crimes against humanity.

Defendant Eyad al-Gharib covering his face during sentencing. Photo Courtesy of New York Times.

Gharib was a former low-ranking member of Syria’s intelligence service, serving under President Bashar Assad’s regime. During an uprising in 2011, Gharib was ordered to arrest protestors and bring them to al-Khatib, a prison in Damascus. Gharib has been accused of detaining over 30 prisoners who were tortured.

While Gharib was eligible for a sentence of more than 10 years, the court considered mitigating factors. His attorney argued “necessity as defense”, in that Gharib feared for his life and his family’s lives if he did not follow orders.

The primary defendant Anwar Raslan, Gharib’s ranking supervisor, has also been charged with overseeing the torture but has not yet been sentenced. He is accused of supervising the torture of over 4,000 people, resulting in at least 58 deaths. 

So, how did the German court become involved?

After leaving Syria in 2013, both defendants sought asylum in Germany in 2019. Raslan approached German Police claiming that the Syrian Secret Service was after him. Following an investigation of his claims, the German Police discovered he was accused of torture. A Syrian refugee also came forward after recognizing Raslan on the street. Gharib was originally a witness in the case against Raslan but became a suspect in torture accusations.

Germany is not only home to over 800,000 Syrian refugees, but also has adopted a policy of universal jurisdiction. The policy allows the German courts to prosecute crimes against humanity that occurred anywhere in the world, regardless of whether the plaintiffs or defendants are German citizens.

But there are international implications that have arisen out of the universal jurisdiction policy, including this landmark case decision. Russia and China have blocked attempts by the United Nations Security Council to prosecute Syrian war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Mohammad Al-Abdallah, the director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, claimed that the decision will “deter anyone else from defecting or joining the opposition or supplying information to human rights groups.”

Conversely, many believe that the ruling of aiding crimes against humanity will set an international precedent and facilitate more convictions of crimes against humanity.

For further information, please see:

Associated Press News – Conviction in Landmark Case over Syrian Government Torture – 24 Feb. 2021

Deutsche Welle – Defense calls for acquittal of Syrian on trial for torture – 24 Feb. 2021

NPR – Landmark Verdict in Germany Sentences Syrian Official for Crime Against Humanity – 24 Feb. 2021

The New York Times – An Old Legal Doctrine that puts War Criminals in Reach of Justice – 28 Feb. 2021

Turkish Criminal Proceeding Violates the European Convention on Human Rights

By: Genna Amick,

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Lead Articles Editor

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently released a decision involving a sexual abuse case that began nearly two decades ago. On January 8, 2003, a Turkish individual identified only as N.Ç. filed a complaint against two women who forced N.Ç. to engage in prostitution alongside them.

Chambers within the European Court of Human Rights. Photo Courtesy of Bianet.

After an investigation was conducted, the prosecutor in the case filed a bill of indictment against twenty-eight individuals on various charges, including raping a girl who was under fifteen years old, falsely imprisoning a person to fulfill sexual desires, and inciting someone to prostitution. In 2010, after thirty-five hearings, the Mardin Assize Court acquitted several defendants, struck certain charges, such as “consensual imprisonment” and incitement to prostitution, and held that the sexual acts could not affirmatively be deemed nonconsensual as a psychiatric report found that N.Ç. “had not been totally unwilling.” On this basis, the Mardin Assize Court imposed on defendants the minimum sentence outlined in the Criminal Code.

On March 25, 2011, an application was submitted to the ECHR based on a complaint regarding the manner in which N.Ç.’s case was handled by the Mardin Assize Court. The application sought relief based on Article 3, which prohibits inhumane or degrading treatment, Article 6, which provides for the right to a fair hearing, Article 8, which provides for the right to respect for private and family life, and Article 13, which provides for the right to an effective remedy. A number of events occurred during the criminal proceeding that prompted N.Ç.’s application to the ECHR.

In the early stages of the proceedings, N.Ç. was subjected to ten, extremely intrusive medical examinations. All of the examinations were performed at the request of judicial authorities. The ECHR deemed the number of medical examinations to be excessive. Further, the Court stated that the intrusive nature was an unacceptable interference with N.Ç.’s psychological and physical integrity.

Several other human rights violations arose during the trial. On the same day that the defendants, N.Ç., and her representatives first appeared for a hearing before the Mardin Assize Court, N.Ç. and her representatives were attacked by relatives of some of the defendants as they left the courtroom. The Court ignored their request for protection measures, and later dismissed a request that the trial be transferred for safety reasons. Furthermore, N.Ç. was forced to confront her assailants on numerous occasions at various hearings. She also had to recount in detail the threats that the respondents had made and how she was raped. The Court held that the judicial authorities had not properly balanced the varying interests at play. Their failure resulted in a lack of protection for N.Ç. from the defendants in an extremely serious sexual abuse case.

Numerous other oversights on the part of the Turkish court resulted in the Court holding that the criminal proceedings had not been conducted in a manner that protected the values espoused by Articles 3 and 8 of the Convention. The Court ordered Turkey to pay N.Ç. 25,000 euros for non-pecuniary damages, as well as an additional 3,000 euros for costs and expenses.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Criminal proceedings against persons charged in connection with prostitution of a fourteen-year-old child: violations of the Convention – 09 Feb. 2021