Europe's top human rights judge began a controversial visit to Turkey on Thursday despite criticism of what civil liberties groups view as the country's fast deteriorating record on human rights.
Robert Spano, an Icelandic-Italian who began his term as president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in May, is due to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He began his visit by meeting the president of Turkey's constitutional court and delivering an address at the Turkish justice ministry titled: “The independence of the judiciary – a cornerstone of the rule of law.”
Spano is also expected to receive an honorary doctorate from Istanbul University on Friday.
The visit comes at a time of growing alarm over the state of freedom of expression in Turkey under Erdogan, who became president in 2014.
The ECHR ranked Turkey second after Russia on its list of human rights violations recorded in 2019, lodging 113 offences in Turkey and 198 in Russia.
The country is often chastised by rights advocates over arresting journalists, civil society leaders and opposition politicians.
#EbruTimtik, a human rights lawyer, who started a hunger strike in prison demanding a fair trial and justice, died in Istanbul on the 238th day of her hunger strike. #Justice4Ebru pic.twitter.com/e3oCCzhgvq— International Observatory of Human Rights (@observatoryihr) August 28, 2020
Turkey has also tightened control of the internet - including access to social media - and has in the past few years shut down television stations and critical media outlets.
Turkey's P24 press freedom group reports that 92 journalists are behind bars in Turkey today.
The government has also jailed tens of thousands of people and sacked more than 100,000 from their state jobs as part of a nationwide crackdown that followed a failed putsch in 2016.
Critics claim the focus of the crackdown has gone well beyond alleged coup plotters and is designed to silence dissent in Turkey.
Journalist Mehmet Altan, an economics professor who spent almost two years in prison over alleged links to the failed coup, criticised the top judge's visit in an open letter, calling it ill-timed.
“Under normal circumstances, of course it would be a pleasure to hear that you will be visiting Turkey. Unfortunately that's not the case,” he wrote this week.
Altan was acquitted by an Istanbul court in November, one year after the ECHR ruled that Turkey had violated his freedom of expression.
He was dismissed from his job at Istanbul University under an emergency decree issued after the failed coup.
His brother Ahmet Altan, a journalist and author, remains in prison pending an appeal.
Prominent civil society leader Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas are also languishing behind bars.
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