A Turkish court’s decision to disband a human rights organisation representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people shows that official repression poses a serious threat to democratic rights and freedom of association, says Human Rights Watch.

On May 29, the Third Civil Court of First Instance in the Beyoðlu district of Istanbul ruled in favour of a complaint brought by the Istanbul Governor’s Office, and ordered the closing of Lambda Istanbul, a group advocating for LGBT people’s human rights.

The complaint argued that Lambda Istanbul’s objectives are “against the law and morality.” The court failed to address these claims in its judgment and reached a decision that the association should be closed on purely procedural grounds. The ruling is the latest in a series of legal measures targeting organisations promoting the rights of LGBT people.

“The judge’s arbitrary decision highlights the prejudiced proceedings,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, who attended the hearing in Istanbul. “If the authorities can close one organisation on procedural pretexts, all of civil society is in danger.”

The judgment referred to the Law on Associations and article 60/2 of the Civil Code, which taken together provide for closure of associations if they do not “remedy errors and deficiencies” in their statutes.

But the court’s judgment did not specify these “deficiencies.” The proceedings made no reference to these articles before this last hearing on May 29. Neither the Governor’s Office nor the judge or prosecutor raised any such deficiencies in the statutes during previous hearings.

Lambda Istanbul’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch they will receive a fuller explanation when the court produces a full verdict in the coming weeks. Lambda plans to appeal the decision and the case will be referred to the Court of Cassation.

The Office of the Governor of Istanbul demanded Lambda Istanbul’s closure in early 2007, claiming the name and objectives of the group were offensive to Turkish “moral values and its family structure.”

In July 2007, the local Prosecutor’s Office rejected the complaint, but the Governor’s Office took the case to the courts. The court conducted six hearings before issuing the May 2008 verdict.

In another recent incident, on April 7, 2008, police raided the offices of Lambda Istanbul. The police justified the incursion by claiming the organisation “encourages” and “facilitates” prostitution.

Turkish authorities have targeted other LGBT organisations as well. In September 2005, the Ankara Governor’s Office accused the Ankara-based group KAOS-GL of “establishing an organisation that is against the laws and principles of morality.”

Similarly, the Ankara Governor’s Office attempted in July 2006 to close the human rights group Pembe Hayat (Pink Life), which works with transgender people, claiming to prosecutors that the association opposed “morality and family structure.” In both cases, prosecutors dropped the charges.

Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party, requires the Turkish authorities, including the judiciary, to protect freedom of association. Any restriction on this right requires convincing and compelling justification.

Earlier in May, Human Rights Watch published a 123-page report documenting a long and continuing history of violence and abuse based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the country. The report calls on the EU to monitor respect for LGBT people’s basic rights as a barometer of Turkey’s human rights progress.

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