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Turkey: Nation Under Fire For Troublesome Human Rights Record

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Last week, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International issued separate reports pointing out Turkey's failure to eradicate torture, despite declarations of intent issued by the government. The reports came out only days after four hunger strikers protesting a planned prison reform were killed during a police raid in Istanbul.

Prague, 13 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Despite earlier promises to improve its human rights record in anticipation of accession talks with the European Union, Turkey is coming under growing criticism for its failure to end police brutality and for its heavy handling of a year-long hunger strike staged by inmates protesting a controversial prison reform.

Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and applied for EU membership years ago. Yet accession talks have not officially started, mainly due to European concerns regarding Ankara's human rights record.

Earlier this year (19 March), Turkey adopted a reform program aimed at qualifying for membership in the EU but the program failed to meet key European demands, notably regarding the death penalty and the rights of ethnic minorities.

On 8 November, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published a report reviewing ill treatment imposed by Turkey on inmates and detainees during police custody and interrogation.

The report stemmed from a mission made in July 2000 by a council delegation to a number of detention centers and police headquarters, mainly in Istanbul and Ankara.

Although the CPT says Turkey has made progress both in curtailing the worst forms of police brutality and in improving its legislation to protect prisoner rights, it says it has collected testimonies showing that detainees are still being routinely subjected to abuses ranging from sleep deprivation and electric shock to sexual harassment and physical threats.

In a separate document issued the same day, the human rights watchdog group Amnesty International corroborated the CPT's conclusions, though in much harsher language. In its 40-page report -- based on fact-finding missions conducted from November 1999 through June 2001 -- the organization says: "Detainees are routinely blindfolded during interrogations and some are held blindfolded throughout police detention. Other methods of torture and ill treatment regularly reported include heavy beating, being stripped naked, sexual abuse, death and rape threats, other psychological torture, and deprivation of sleep, food, drink, and use of toilet."

Amnesty also says it has recorded cases of prisoners being hanged by the arms, sprayed with cold, pressurized water or exposed to the so-called "falaka," a form of torture that consists of beating the soles of the feet.

Seray Salman is the deputy chairwoman of the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD). She tells our correspondent that police brutality has not substantially diminished: "Actually, [police] brutality has not really receded. There were some demonstrations recently against the war [in Afghanistan], and many demonstrators have been detained and ill treated in police stations. There is no real, radical improvement in the actions of police. You cannot say that."

Salman was referring to a week-old incident in which police used tear gas and nightsticks to break up protests held by leftist students in Istanbul and Ankara against the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Dozens of protesters were detained.

Jonathan Sugden is a Turkey researcher for the London branch of Human Rights Watch (HRW). Sugden tells RFE/RL that the impression that police brutality has receded may exist simply because a decrease in military operations between government forces and Kurdish armed rebels in Turkey's southeastern provinces has led to a considerable reduction in the number of detainees.

But Sugden warns against hasty conclusions: "On the other side of the picture, I have to say that we are still getting reports of men, women, and children being tortured in detention. [We are] still getting reports of deaths in custody, apparently as a result of torture. And if you take a different time frame -- say, over the last two years -- the [Turkish] Human Rights Association said they received twice as many reports of torture in the first six months of this year as they did in the comparable months of last year. So, really, it is quite a mixed picture."

It is unclear whether the increasing reports of torture and ill treatment reflect an upsurge in police brutality or a growing awareness among Turkish citizens that they can turn to human rights organizations.

In its report, Amnesty International notes that victims living in rural areas have no easy access to human rights defenders, suggesting that cases of police brutality in remote regions may go unnoticed.

The organization also says most cases of torture are reported by suspected pro-Kurdish militants, Islamic or left-wing activists, or inmates protesting against the controversial new prison system. Amnesty believes this circumstance can be explained because these groups have a "greater knowledge of their rights and ways to seek justice."

The organization also notes that because of social pressures, many women and young girls prefer not to report rape or sexual abuse that may occur while they're in custody.

In its response to the Council of Europe, the Turkish government claims that cases of torture and ill treatment mentioned in the CPT report have led to administrative investigations against police officers suspected of abusing detainees. But it also says most police officers singled out by the European body have been cleared of all charges.

Sugden of Human Rights Watch says complaints of torture seldom lead to the prosecution of suspected perpetrators.

"Certainly, there has been quite a lot of police officers tried, [but] these trials take a very long time -- many years. Sometimes they go on for a decade. And what we tend to see is that most complaints do not result in investigations. Of those that do result in investigations, few result in prosecutions. Prosecutions usually result in acquittals. Those that do not result in acquittals result in sentences, but they are often very small sentences. Sentences are very often suspended and even these sorts of sentences are overturned at the court of appeals. So, if you look at the number of police officers actually sitting in jail as a result of their abusing prisoners, it is a tiny, tiny, tiny number. And this is in spite of an enormous number of allegations, many of them very well supported by medical and other evidence."

Official figures cited by Amnesty International show that only 1.7 percent of documented torture cases and 2.9 percent of ill-treatment complaints filed between 1995 and 1999 led to convictions.

Although torture mainly occurs in the first days of custody, when prisoners are kept in incommunicado detention -- that is, without any contact with the outside world -- human rights organizations also have expressed concern about the ill treatment of prisoners during prison transfers.

In October of last year, some 1,000 inmates went on hunger strikes to protest their pending transfers to new, high-security jails with individual cells, designed to replace overcrowded dormitory-type wards. Authorities say the so-called "F-type" prisons meet European standards, while prisoners and human rights groups say they isolate inmates and expose them to greater abuse by wardens.

The government also says the prison reform aims at cutting the power of mafia bosses or "terrorists" -- a generic name used to designate militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party and other banned leftist groups and guerillas -- whom it accuses of running prison wards as "indoctrination centers" to recruit new members.

In December 2000, police and paramilitary forces raided 20 prisons throughout the country to put an end to the hunger strike. The four-day operation succeeded in restoring order in detention centers, but it left 30 prisoners and two police officers dead. It also failed to quell the protest movement.

Since then, more than 10 inmates have died from starvation and, according to Turkey's IHD chairman Husnu Ondul, an estimated 176 prisoners, relatives, and friends are still on what they describe as "death fasts."

On 5 November, Istanbul police stormed a house in the Kucukarmutlu working-class neighborhood, which has been a center of protests against the new prison system. The operation resulted in the deaths of four hunger strikers, who police claim burned themselves to death. Human rights associations question the version given by law enforcement agencies.

In a statement issued two days after the incident, Amnesty International said another 14 people were wounded during the raid and called on the government to open a "prompt, independent, and impartial investigation."

IHD's Salman says eyewitness accounts suggest two hunger strikers died of their burns, while the other two may have been shot by police after setting themselves on fire.

Police again raided Kucukarmutlu and another Istanbul district today, arresting a number of hunger strikers.

IHD and other human rights and non-governmental organizations have urged the government to enter into a dialogue with the hunger strikers. These calls have remained largely unheeded.

HRW's Sugden says that, despite some cosmetic and theoretical changes adopted since last December -- such as allowing inmates to participate in outdoor activities and allowing prison monitoring by outside organizations -- negotiations remain deadlocked, mainly because of what he describes as the government's "entrenched position."

"[Authorities] have met delegations of relatives of hunger strikers. They have met the Human Rights Association on occasions. They have also allowed the Medical Association access to prisoners on occasions. But they haven't sat down in a constructive sort of way and said, 'Let's resolve this issue.' And at the same time, every time the prisoners' relatives get on the streets, they round them up. A group of women who went to send a telegram to the Justice Ministry were rounded up and pepper gassed. And that's been happening over and over again. It is as if they do whatever they can to entrench the position of the other side as well."

IHD's Salman also accuses the government of refusing to negotiate: "Nothing happened. There are even court cases and investigations going on at the moment against [some] professional organizations. One of them is the Medical Association. They are accused of inciting people to commit suicide because they are against forcibly feeding the hunger strikers. The Interior Ministry launched an investigation against the association's honorary council in April. Prosecutors are requiring quite heavy penalties against them."

A large number of inmates on hunger strike have been temporarily released on health grounds, and Salman says most of them have agreed to receive medical assistance. They are being taken care of by either friends or relatives, or by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, which has set up rehabilitation centers throughout the country.

But for many of them, Sugden says, it is too late: "Many, of course, have been permanently brain damaged because of the hunger strike and a very, very large number -- [the] last times I counted more than 60 -- are permanently and severely brain damaged. That is to say that, in a sense, they have been reduced to the psychology of a two- or three-year-old child, barely able to bring food to their mouth. And that is permanent."

In a further attempt to pave the way for EU membership talks, on 24 October Turkey adopted a package of constitutional reforms making the banning of political parties tougher, easing curbs on the use of the Kurdish language and scrapping the death penalty for some criminal offenses.

The EU welcomed the move as an "encouraging step towards democratization." But human rights organizations are far more skeptical, noting that a number of periodicals have been ordered closed or confiscated since the constitutional changes because they were using the Kurdish language. They also express concern at the number of court cases initiated against supporters of the left-wing hunger strikers or against newspapers reporting on the progress of the protest movement.

As HRW's Sugden says, "It is a very familiar picture -- making soft changes on paper while the practices actually persist."

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