An attempt by the governor of Istanbul to close down a gay rights group, Lambda Istanbul, has been described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as a threat to basic freedoms of association and expression.

Shutting down groups because you don’t like the people they represent is an attack on freedom itself,” said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at HRW, who will attend an October 18, 2007 court hearing in Istanbul on the organisation’s fate. “If organisations that defend human rights cannot function, Turkey’s status as a real democracy is in danger.”

The Governor’s Office of Istanbul has demanded the closure of Lambda Istanbul, an organisation defending lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’s rights in Turkey, claiming that the name and objectives of the group are “against the law and morality”.

The governor had asked in early 2007 that the group be shut down; in July, the local Prosecutor’s Office rejected the complaint. The Governor’s Office then took the case to a higher court, which heard the case in July 2007 and ordered a second hearing for October.

The Provincial Associations Directorate of the Governor’s Office, responsible for nongovernmental organisations, alleged that Lambda Istanbul’s aims violate the Turkish Civil Code and the Constitution.

Article 56 of the Turkish Civil Code states that, “No association may be founded for purposes against law and morality.” The Turkish Constitution states that “[t]he family is the foundation of the Turkish society …”and that “[t]he state shall take the necessary measures and establish the necessary organisation to ensure the peace and welfare of the family.” Article 54 of Turkey’s Law on Associations allows for the suspension of organisations on the grounds, among others, of “public morality.”

Lambda Istanbul’s charter defines its main aim as “to support all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to adopt equality as a value, to realise their inner selves and to help bring peace and welfare; to guide LGBT individuals in becoming more professional, more active and responsible towards society and in social matters.”

The governor’s complaint also claims the group’s name contravenes the law as “Lambda” is not a Turkish word. The word is an internationally recognised symbol of LGBT identity.

Lambda Istanbul operates a telephone helpline to counsel LGBT people and raises awareness through cultural, educational, and political activities. It has actively lobbied for legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Lambda applied for nongovernmental organisation status with the Ministry of the Interior in 2006, but its application is on hold until the court reaches a decision.

Government officials have made similar legal moves to shut down other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organisations in Turkey. Kaos GL, based in Ankara, faced a demand for closure from Ankara’s deputy governor, Selahattin Ekmenoglu, in 2005. The closure petition was dismissed by the Prosecutor’s Office.

In 2005, sexual orientation was included as a protected status in an early draft of an anti-discrimination bill in Parliament, but lawmakers later eliminated the language. Meanwhile, laws and regulations that refer to “general morality” are still used to restrict LGBT people’s rights to association and expression, and also to justify police arrests and harassment on the streets, says HRW.

Turkey is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Both treaties protect the rights to freedom of expression and association and prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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