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Turkey: Problems Remain In Prisons

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey's plan to house prisoners in cleaner, more modern jails has been marred by prison riots, as inmates fear that the new jails, which have smaller cells, will increase the scope for isolation and abuse. The plan sparked prison riots last month that left more than 30 dead, and some prisoners remain on a hunger strike. RFE/RL's Jean-Christophe Peuch reports the Turkish government has been slow to answer the concerns of inmates and international watchdog groups.

Prague, 12 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last month, Turkish police and paramilitary forces launched simultaneous raids on 20 prisons throughout the country to put an end to a two-month-old hunger strike staged by inmates protesting a pending transfer to new controversial jails.

The four-day police operation -- code-named "Return to Life" -- ended in unprecedented bloodshed. Turkish authorities put the death toll at 33, including two gendarmes who the Justice Ministry says died as "martyrs" during clashes with inmates.

A month later, the heavy smoke hanging over Turkey's prisons is gone, yet hundreds of prisoners are continuing with their hunger strike -- some have been striking more than 80 days and are said to be near death. In the meantime, more than 1,000 inmates -- mainly members of far-left political organizations -- have been forcibly transferred from the older jails, known as "E-type" prisons, to the newer establishments.

Inmates opposed the transfer to the new jails, which are more modern but have smaller cells, because they feared they could more easily be isolated and abused in the new facilities. Turkish officials claim the new prisons meet international human rights standards and bring them closer to European norms.

Human rights organizations say inmates endured all manner of ill treatment during the transfer and on arrival to the new prisons.

A researcher for the London branch of Human Rights Watch, Jonathan Sugden, tells RFE/RL that he spoke to relatives of inmates, lawyers and to three prisoners released last month under a partial amnesty. He relays their stories:

"The sorts of things they reported were people being beaten, punched, insulted, at the time of when they were arriving to the prison [and] running a gauntlet between two groups of soldiers who were beating and kicking them, making them crawl, kiss [their] boots, making them sing the national anthem."

Turkish authorities have not responded to requests by lawyers and human rights organizations for an explanation and forensic examinations. In a statement last week, the Justice Ministry denied prisoners transferred to the new prisons are being tortured or maltreated.

The Justice Ministry did not return RFE/RL's calls for comment.

Most of Turkey's 72,000 inmates live in large dormitory-style cells that house up to 80 inmates. Under a government plan, prisoners are to be moved to new jails with cells designed to house one to three convicts.

But critics say inmates' fears are justified that the new prisons will expand the scope for guards and wardens to isolate and abuse individuals. Feray Salman is the deputy secretary general of the Ankara-based Human Rights Association (IHD). She explains to RFE/RL:

"There is a strong belief that [the new regime] is a regime to isolate people. This is not a reform. This cannot be called a reform. Cell-type [prisons] are organized in [such] a way that control over the cells is subject to arbitrary use."

Sugden believes isolation is also a matter for concern:

"From my point of view, the most grave worry is the isolation because it could turn into a long-term problem which will cause immense misery to many, many people for a long time to come."

The government justifies its plan by saying that in the older E-type jails, criminals can share living space with members of their own gangs. It says the prison reform will cut the power of mafia bosses and "terrorists" -- a generic name used to designate militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other banned leftist groups and guerillas -- whom it accuses of hiding weapons in their cells and running the dormitories as "indoctrination centers" to recruit new members.

Authorities say new jails are equipped with workshops, libraries and sport facilities which do not exist in old prisons. They claim that the new system will be more humane and will meet human rights standards while Turkey is knocking at the European Union's door.

But critics object that prior to reforming the prisons the government should amend the penal code and strict anti-terror laws adopted in 1991, when the government decided to crack down on the PKK. They say these laws allow police to torture confessions out of suspects and jail people for simply writing political slogans onto walls, an offense that is punishable by heavy jail sentences.

As Salman explains:

"The state [authorities] are quite clever actually. They are bringing [forward] this ward system, saying that there are 80 inmates in one [cell], that this is not humane, that several incidents are taking place in these kinds of [cells], etc. But this is not the starting point. On which accusations are you putting these people in prison? What kind of penal system have you got? Is it democratic or not? Is it limiting freedom of expression or freedom to get organized? This needs to be discussed first of all."

Earlier this week police beefed up security measures, saying they fear attacks by left-wing radicals who allegedly vowed to avenge the deaths of their 31 comrades killed during last month's prison riots.

The Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a far-left militant group, reportedly claimed responsibility for a recent suicide bomb attack against a police building in Istanbul's Sisli district which killed one policeman.

On Wednesday, unidentified gunmen shot one police officer dead and wounded another in Istanbul. A similar attack left two policemen dead in December.

Authorities say most of the prisoners killed during last month's riots were set ablaze by fellow inmates or burned themselves. But families of the victims have also accused law enforcement agencies of excessive violence and arbitrary killings during the operation. As Sugden says, the victims' families are calling upon the government to carry out an independent investigation into the raids.

"Persistently, we had accounts of gendarmes pouring in incendiary material, powder and liquids into the wards and then setting them alight. I can't tell you whether this is true or not. The only way you can find out is by having a really thorough and impartial investigation."

Turkish authorities meanwhile have begun cracking down on human rights activists looking into allegations of torture in the new prisons.

Salman told RFE/RL that authorities have ordered branches of the Human Rights Association to be closed down in Bursa, Izmir, Van, Malatya, Konya and Gaziantep -- some temporarily, others permanently.

Reuter news agency reports that former Human Rights Association president Nimet Tanrikulu was arrested this week after demonstrating against the transfer operations. Salman said other members of the association are being investigated by police.

The December raids have added fuel to concerns that law-enforcement agencies are trying to have a greater say in Turkish affairs.

Both Sugden and Salman point out the Justice Ministry was not directly involved in the violent crackdown. They say it was planned and decided on by the military and the Interior Ministry.

Media and politicians have been speculating over the growing role of the military, which is opposed to government efforts to amend the criminal code.

Earlier this week, the deputy prime minister and leader of the center-right Motherland Party, Mesut Yilmaz, called a recent corruption probe at the Energy Ministry an assault on the authority of civilian politicians. He was reacting to remarks published by Turkey's biggest selling daily "Hurriyet," in which an unnamed commander of the paramilitary forces said the gendarmerie had ordered the probe.

The army's general staff reacted swiftly to Yilmaz's comments, calling them "great slander against the armed forces."

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