It was standing room only inside Europe’s largest courthouse, a fortress of a structure just north of Istanbul’s historic city center. I was crammed alongside human rights defenders and doctors from across Turkey and around the world to support our colleague and friend, Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, a forensic physician and long-time torture investigator put on trial for exercising the very rights she has spent a career defending.
Accused of disseminating “terrorist propaganda” for taking part in a freedom of expression campaign, Dr. Fincancı is one of thousands of Turks who have faced punishment in recent months for criticizing a government that has increasingly flouted international law and human rights norms – and has shown a willingness to vilify anyone who opposes its actions.
Dr. Fincancı and her co-defendants presented their defense. Before the prosecutor could present his case, the three-judge panel chose to postpone the proceedings until January. This tactic, often used to sap the publicity surrounding a case, would effectively give the Turkish government more latitude in punishing Fincancı, and all those who dare speak out against it.
At a dinner that evening, rather than indulging in self-pity or fear, Dr. Fincancı – who also serves as president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey – was upbeat. She thanked our delegation for supporting her, and said that if she were to face jail time, at least she’d gain access to prisons, which have long been off-limits to human rights investigators like her. It was a moment of both levity and courage that heartened everyone in the room.
Turkey’s democratic backslide is merely a chapter in what is fast becoming a global story of burgeoning anti-democratic forces. Dark clouds are on the horizon not just in Turkey, but in Russia, in Hungary, in Egypt, in France, and, yes, in the United States. The same day Dr. Fincancı stood trial, voters in the United States elected to the presidency Donald Trump, a man who has threatened to deport millions, re-introduce torture, and punish those who criticize him.
Turkey is an example of what happens when such authoritarian forces have a free hand. Days before our arrival, the leaders of the country’s opposition Kurdish party were arrested and detained. Dozens of journalists at the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet were locked up. Whereas a few weeks ago we were optimistic that charges against Dr. Fincancı would be dropped, our optimism has since faded in the face of widespread suppression with such blatant impunity.
What we see in Turkey is the logical conclusion of threats like those Trump has made. He led chants of “lock her up” against his opponent Hillary Clinton. He pledged to bring back waterboarding “and a whole lot worse.” And he appears to be allying himself with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who has dropped bombs on hospitals across Syria, killing and violating international law with a shameless disregard for human life.
Together, leaders like Putin and Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represent a threat to the global human rights movement and to human dignity everywhere.
For human rights defenders, it can feel as though we are moving from the golden years of human rights to the dark days. But at this moment, it’s more important than ever that human rights advocates show solidarity. It may seem like a small act, but rallying in person or online, volunteering or making a small donation, marching and protesting in the streets – these are all powerful gestures. Tyrants want to see us silenced. Our solidarity is proof that we cannot and will not be quiet in the face of repression.
For now, we can follow the lead of Dr. Fincancı, who is brave in the face of danger; funny and fearless in times of crisis; warm in a world that can seem cold to the needs and suffering of others. In each of us the flame of hope burns bright, and together we can light the way forward.