Turkey's State of Emergency Worries Human Rights Groups

Turkey’s parliament approved on Thursday a state of emergency as human rights groups and opposition parties raised concerns that the measure, passed in the aftermath of an attempted military coup, could be used to harass peaceful critics of the government.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the state of emergency in a speech late on Wednesday night, five days after the violent power grab that left more than 200 people dead. The parliament approved the emergency measure a day later.

The declaration grants the government expanded powers to rule by decree as the authorities continue to reassert control of the country and round up people suspected of ties to the coup plot. The clampdown comes in response to a bloody military insurrection that nearly succeeded as a helicopter gunship fired on the house of parliament and the president said he evaded capture by a matter of minutes.

“This measure is in no way against democracy, the law and freedoms,” Erdogan said Wednesday night, according to the Associated Press. “On the contrary it aims to protect and strengthen them.”

The president’s assurances did not convince human rights advocates who are now anticipating that Erdogan’s administration could expand the crackdown beyond participants in the coup, resulting in reprisals against critics.

“The danger is, and what makes people so fearful, is that anyone who speaks out against these abuses, or anyone who opposes the government in any way, will be tarred with siding with the coup plotters and being part of it,” says Andrew Gardner, a Turkey researcher at Amnesty International.

The declared state of emergency offers a basis for the sweeping government action already underway. More than 9,000 people have been detained and some 37,000 civil servants suspended in an ongoing crackdown on alleged coup supporters. Those detained include more than 6,800 military personnel, including 99 generals, or roughly a third of the senior commanders of the armed forces.

The clampdown is targeting people accused of ties to supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a controversial U.S.-based religious figure who the government accuses of masterminding the coup. The government suspended some 15,200 employees of the ministry of education and demanded the resignation of 1,577 university deans. In addition, 2,277 judges and prosecutors have been detained, according to Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş.

On Thursday morning, a respected human rights lawyer and journalist, Orhan Kemal Cengiz was detained in Istanbul and taken to a police headquarters. Cengiz wrote for newspapers affiliated with the Gulen movement, but was regarded as an independent voice.

“It’s absolutely crystal clear that the authorities don’t have evidence of wrongdoing, or in the detentions, criminal conduct, on behalf of all the individuals,” says Gardner. “They can’t collect information, evidence this fast. At the very least, it is arbitrary, discriminatory practices on behalf of the authorities based on people's perceived affiliations, political views.”

The government has also blocked access to at least 20 news websites, revoked the press credentials of 34 journalists, and revoked the licenses of 34 media organizations, according to Amnesty.

“It is always worrying of course to have these restrictive behaviors of governments, because it restricts some other rights of the people, whereas it is not related with any kind of threat at all,” says Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation.

Also on Thursday, the government announced it would limit certain rights guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights, a step permitted under the treaty in times of emergency.

The government has not listed which rights it plans to derogate. The convention does not allow states to suspend certain fundamental rights, including the right to life and the prohibition on torture, but rights groups say Turkey’s derogation could provide a legal context for other steps, such as suspending education as seeks to shut down 524 private schools over suspected links to the Gulen movement.

Turkish officials insist the derogation of rights under the treaty is a temporary and limited measure that will not be used against political opponents. Officials point out France also derogated rights under the treaty following the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015.

“Our citizens with different political views or lifestyles should not feel uncomfortable. This is not a proclamation of martial law; there won’t be curfews. The right to assembly will continue to be exercised,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told journalists in Ankara on Thursday.

Turkish political leaders from both the ruling party and the opposition rallied against the coup attempt last Friday, producing a striking moment of national unity. But reactions to the state of emergency suggested that the tenuous national consensus was rapidly collapsing. In parliament on Thursday the emergency declaration passed by a vote of 346 to 115.

The leftist opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party assailed the emergency declaration. “The historic opportunity to take steps against the coup with social consensus by democratic measures was not taken. We find this cheap, pragmatic and stillborn approach of celebrating the state of emergency unacceptable,” the party said in a statement.

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