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Erdogan's opponents vow fresh start on Turkish human rights

By Burcu Karakas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan's opponents say they will repair the damage done to human rights during his rule, promising a new era for democracy and freedoms if he loses power in an election on Sunday.

With Erdogan facing his toughest test yet at the ballot box, rights advocates hope his defeat will draw a line under an era which they say has seen judicial independence eroded, freedom of speech curbed, and journalists and politicians jailed.

"If we take power, everyone will speak freely and be harshly criticized," Gokce Gokcen, deputy chairwoman of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), told Reuters in an interview.

"We will focus on building a pluralistic democracy. As we put an end to the autocratic rule in Turkey, we will take comprehensive measures so that no authoritarian regime will emerge again," she said.

While Ankara defends its rights record, critics say civil liberties and freedoms have suffered major set backs over the last decade as Erdogan has concentrated ever more power in his hands, prompting concern among Western allies.

Gokcen said an opposition-led government would introduce changes including a constitutional amendment to secure judicial independence, and put an end to politically-motivated lawsuits.

Among other changes, she said an opposition-led Turkey would also respect rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, with which Erdogan has clashed, notably over the case of Osman Kavala.

A civil activist, Kavala was jailed for life in 2022 on a charge of trying to overthrow the government by financing protests. Western powers see it as a politically-driven case.

The opposition has long said Erdogan and his AK Party influence the courts. The government denies this.

Polls are showing a tight race between Erdogan and his main challenger, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, candidate of a six-party alliance, who has a slight lead.

Seeking to rally his conservative base, Erdogan has declared the opposition "pro-LGBT" while on the campaign trail. Rights activists say the LGBT community, often described as "deviant" by Erdogan, has been systematically targeted.

Supporters of Erdogan, who was once jailed for reciting a poem which authorities said incited Islamist sedition, view him as a defender of democracy and civilian government who confronted the military to halt its interference in politics.

"Despite all provocations, we did not give up rule of law, democracy and legitimacy", Erdogan tweeted on May 10.

TURNING POINT

In campaign rallies he has sought to remind voters of his early years in power when he lifted a ban on women wearing headscarves at university and in public sector jobs.

But critics say women's rights have suffered in recent years, notably in 2021 when the government pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty combating gender-based violence, on grounds that it threatens family values and that local laws were sufficient.

The opposition plans to reverse the decision.

Critics see 2013 as a turning point for rights in Turkey, when protests against government plans to build a shopping mall in Istanbul's Gezi Park spiralled into nationwide demonstrations against what Erdogan's opponents saw as his authoritarianism.

That year, Mehmet Golebatmaz, a lawyer, was convicted of "insulting a public officer" over a cartoon showing Erdogan on a boat covered with graffiti and slogans from the Gezi Park protests. "Erdogan's one-man rule uses the judiciary to crack down on dissidents," said Golebatmaz, 60.

"My friends and I who drew political cartoons were not put on trial even after the 1980 coup," he said, referring to an army takeover after which political life was halted for three years and many civil liberties were suspended.

A 'DARK PICTURE'

Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2022, said Erdogan's government has set back Turkey's human rights record by decades.

Ruhat Sena Aksener of Amnesty International said the election is taking place in "a very dark picture of human rights", and that re-establishing the judiciary's independence and impartiality must be the next government's first priority.

The political rights of Turkey's Kurdish minority have been brought into renewed focus ahead of the vote as the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) has faced the prospect of being shut down over alleged militant ties, which it denies.

The HDP has faced a crackdown since the collapse in 2015 of Ankara's peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies.

Evin Jiyan Kisanak, the daughter of jailed Kurdish politician Gultan Kisanak, said judicial independence and the right to a fair trial do not exist in Turkey, urging the creation of system offering "justice for all" after the vote.

Gultan Kisanak, who once served as co-mayor of the city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, was jailed in 2016 on charges of membership of a terrorist organisation - which she denied.

"In the last seven years, I have been following my mother's trials very closely," said her daughter. "Cases of all political prisoners in Turkey are linked to freedom of expression."

(Reporting by Burcu Karakas; Editing by Tom Perry, Alexandra Hudson)