Thousands protest Turkey leaving the Istanbul Convention

Thousands of people took to the streets across Turkey on Thursday to protest the country’s official withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on combatting violence against women and vulnerable groups.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree annulling Turkey’s ratification of the convention on March 19, sparking domestic and international condemnation.    

Turkish lawmakers and activists played a crucial role in shaping the Council of Europe treaty, which was adopted as legally-binding across the continent in 2014.

“We are not giving up on the Istanbul Convention” was the slogan of those gathered in central Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue.

Initially met by a police blockade, organisers briefly negotiated for the protestors to be allowed to pass through the streets of the country's largest city. But minutes later they were met with tear gas and a baton charge.

“Protestors already loud & clear - we won’t be silenced, we aren’t cowed, we won’t give up! Authorities must uphold the right to peaceful assembly,” said Amnesty International’s Milena Büyüm.

Similar scenes played out in the western city of İzmir, where police violently intervened against protests led by women’s and LGBTQ groups.

Hundreds also took to the streets from the northern Black Sea town of Hopa, to the southeastern city of Şanlıurfa, and Antalya on the southwest coast.

In the capital city Ankara, protesters issued a statement decrying the ways women continue to be “disappeared, murdered, imprisoned”, according to news website Artı Gerçek.

“We know who encourages Şirin Ünal, Zaynal Abarakov, Musa Orhan, Tolga Ağar,” the statement said, referring to men implicated in disappearances of young women. Ünal and Ağar are members of parliament for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The Istanbul Convention was developed following the murder of Turkish woman Nahide Opuz, who repeatedly appealed to local authorities for protection before being killed by her abusive husband in 2002. Opuz’s mother took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled Turkey had failed in its duty to protect citizens from domestic violence.

Opponents in Turkey and elsewhere, including Poland and Hungry, claim the convention undermines the family and promotes homosexuality. Sexual orientation and non-binary gender identities are briefly cited in a clause on non-discrimination, which proscribes lenient sentencing on moral or cultural grounds in cases of “honour killings”.  

Despite Turkey’s conservative-leaning politics, a 2020 study by polling company MetroPoll found only 17 percent of people approved of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention.

The AKP government has promised a new laws it says will better suits Turkey’s unique cultural heritage. However, no concrete steps have yet been taken.

Meanwhile, at least 18 women were murdered last month, while a further 20 died in suspicious circumstances, according to advocacy group We Will Stop Femicides.

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