A police raid on a Turkish gay rights organisation is the latest incident in an escalating pattern of harassment of gay rights groups, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday.

On April 7, approximately 12 police in plainclothes entered the headquarters of the Lambda Istanbul Cultural Centre, which defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Their warrant cited suspicion that Lambda “facilitates prostitution, acts as a go-between [and] provides a place for [prostitution],” criminalised under Article 227 of Turkey’s Penal Code.

The raid took place 10 days before an April 17 court hearing in a case against Lambda Istanbul brought by the Istanbul Governor’s Office, accusing the group of violating Turkish “moral values and its family structure.”

“What’s really immoral is the Istanbul authorities’ campaign against Lambda Istanbul for protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” said Scott Long, director of the LGBT Rights Program at HRW.

“The government should reform laws that allow officials to harass groups like Lambda Istanbul in order to guarantee everyone’s human rights.”

After a two-hour search the officers took a list of Lambda Istanbul’s members, along with records of its decisions and other documents. The organisation’s property has still not been returned. Lambda Istanbul’s attorney told HRW that prosecutors informed him the group had been under surveillance since March 2008.

Lambda Istanbul has suffered harassment by the Turkish authorities since 2007, when the Istanbul Governor’s Office demanded its closure, arguing the name and objectives of the group were offensive to Turkish “moral values and its family structure.”

The Prosecutor’s Office rejected the complaint in July 2007, but the governor’s office pursued the case to a higher court. After four hearings, the case is still pending.

In a letter to Turkish Minister of Interior Beþir Atalay, HRW called on the government to cease official harassment of groups working on sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and to ensure training of all criminal-justice officials in human rights principles.

Under human rights law, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which applies in Turkey, the Turkish authorities must guarantee freedom of association to all, without discrimination.

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