Torture and ill-treatment, predominantly towards those accused of political crimes, is not a new phenomenon in Turkey. Several organisations have documented such abuses in the past.
Then a promise of ‘zero tolerance’ towards torture proclaimed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in late 2002, alongside implementation of relevant laws and regulations, bought about high hopes for an end to these horrific acts. Yet they continued, particularly against those implicated with the Kurdish struggle. More recently, the purging of alleged Gulenists and ‘sympathisers’ of the so-called terrorist organisation has led to a renewed proliferation of torture practices. By bringing the judiciary and public service under government control, a lack of investigation and prosecution against the perpetrators has also heightened.
A History of Torture
A report produced by Freedom from Torture, examining cases referred to them from Turkey between 1992 to 2015, found that the majority of the 60 victims were Kurdish men detained for political reasons. All had experienced severe beatings, and 77% had experienced sexual torture. 63% had also been subjected to electric shocks, and 58% from pressurised water hosing. Other methods included falaka (beating the soles of the feet), asphyxiation, burns, use of stress positions, and mock execution; at least three had been taken to the roof and threatened with being thrown to their death. These acts of torture were most commonly undertaken by police anti-terrorist units, but the gendarmerie and military were also implicated.
Alongside national laws against torture, Turkey is a longstanding party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2003, after the AKP committed to a zero-tolerance policy, they ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2011, they became party to the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. A member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is also bound to the Convention of Human Rights, in which article three pertains to the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Yet the European Court of Human Rights has found Turkey guilty of violating this article on numerous occasions. Furthermore, after the July 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan announced a suspension on the Convention of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The withdrawal of these safeguards against torture, alongside state of emergency decrees which allow prolonged detention and immunity for anti-terrorism law enforcement, has created a climate conducive to rights abuses against detainees. In November 2016, the United Nations rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, visited Turkey. He noted the numerous allegations of torture and a ‘grossly disproportionate’ ratio of allegations to investigations. The overcrowding of detention facilities and subsequent ill conditions was also problematic, with centres ranging from 125% to 200% capacity. Although the rapporteur stated that there was no evidence of on-going torture after the initial post-coup weeks, various credible organisations have found otherwise.
Research undertaken by Human Rights Watch in Turkey February to September 2017 revealed accounts of severe beatings – resulting in bleeding, fractures, and burns – in addition to electroshocks, unnecessary strip searches and sexual assault including rape with an object. There has also been evidence of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and denial of food and water. These methods are primarily aimed at extracting confessions of personal involvement or that of others. Certainly, many have been arrested due to false accusations made against them under torture. Former public servants, such as police officials, military officers, lawyers and judges have not been exempt from enduring these abuses.
The Stockholm Centre for Freedom, founded by Turkish journalists in exile, has outlined dozens of recent cases against alleged Gulenists. Beatings, pressurised water hosing, and rape with a truncheon are common. The Centre found that police officers, prison workers, intelligence officials and paramilitary forces have all been responsible for torture and ill-treatment. However, the President Adbullah Bozkurt stresses that it is the government that instigates these acts. For example, Erdogan has declared that Gulenist sympathisers to not have the right to life, and the former Economy Minister stated that they will “punish them in such a way that they will say, ‘I wish I had died’”. Indeed, torture victim Hasan Kobalay remarks that “I wish they had killed me”. Bozkurt relates how this hateful narrative has been exported overseas; he himself has been subject to stalking and threats in Sweden.
A new report by the Platform for Peace and Justice further confirms ongoing beatings, and documents use of stress positions and psychological abuse against detainees. The organisation summarises the ill conditions resulting from overcrowding, such as inadequate shower and toilet facilities, a shortage of food and beds. This does not include the conditions in numerous unofficial holding centres such as stables, old mills and sporting halls. More than 50 people have committed suicide due to torture and ill-treatment since the coup attempt, although it is speculated that some were a result of injuries or even straight out extra-judicial killings.
Many other seriously ill prisoners have been detained with limited access to medical treatment, with 841 counted in May 2017. For instance, Mustafa Erdogan, a dismissed judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals, was left with half his body paralysed after cancer surgery. His daughter Buket Erdogan recalls how despite this, he was kept in a prison-like hospital room with double-layer bars. Even after Mustafa lost consciousness he was not released to a regular hospital for four more days, passing away shortly after. Those imprisoned are not the only ones facing limited access to medical care. A fugitive has related how they cannot go to the hospital as the system is linked to the police database. They have not seen their family in over a year, and ask – is that not torture?
Culture of Impunity
Erdogan’s takeover of the judiciary and public service has reinforced the culture of impunity. Those who are not aligned with the ruling party fear speaking out against abuses. Meetings between detainees and their lawyers are not kept confidential under the state of emergency, and doctors sign off on medical examinations without properly conducting them. People have been threatened against speaking out. It has even been alleged that prison guards have been threatened when they refuse to participate in torture.
But why are these horrific acts being undertaken? According to veteran Turkish police officer interviewed by the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, officials are resorting to torture to elicit confessions due to a lack of credible evidence against detainees. The view that the victims are ‘traitors to the country’ or ‘enemies of Islam’ justifies these acts in the mind of perpetrators. Indeed, some incidents have been publicised by state-run news agencies to deter dissidents. As mentioned, the government has encouraged abuse against Gulenists. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Sub-commission on Prisons has refused to investigate torture and ill-treatment if undertaken against this group.
As Turkey is a key strategic partner regarding the refugee crisis and fight against the Islamic State, the international community has turned a blind eye to torture and ill-treatment. With the most recent numbers showing that 128,998 people have been detained since the July 2016 coup attempt, it is vital that pressure be placed upon the Turkish government to address these crimes.