The testimony of an increasing number of women detained on terrorism charges shows that Turkish security forces use strip searches unlawfully and systematically in order to humiliate them.
The accounts of a number of women who have given anonymous interviews to Bold Medya show that strip searches are common practice in detention. They said they were asked to undress and squat while naked, sometimes with cameras present. Some women have said that they had to go through this process multiple times in front of different female officers.
Some of the women wearing headscarves (hijabs) were also asked to remove them in front of male officers. In Islam Muslim women are required to observe the hijab in front of any man they could theoretically marry. Therefore, this episode was quite unnerving for them.
Only recently, 30 female students detained by Turkish police on August 31 over alleged links to the Gülen movement, a religious group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, were subjected to a strip search and were interrogated without the presence of their lawyers.
The Turkish government accuses the movement of masterminding the coup attempt in July 2016 and labels it a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
According to Turkish legal and preventative search regulations, strip searches can only be conducted in exceptional cases, such as when there are credible indications that the person has contraband materials on him. In such cases the search must be conducted in a manner so as not to humiliate the person and as quickly as possible. When there is a credible suspicion that something is hidden in the person’s body, officers are required to ask the person to remove it himself and inform him that if he disobeys, the removal will be done by the prison doctor.
Speaking to Turkish Minute, lawyer Nurullah Albayrak said the conditions of the students did not warrant a strip search. “Apparently, the accusations that served as the basis for their detention were not violent in nature … but were nonviolent acts such as associating with other students and renting a house together.”
“The strip search in question is a humiliating practice and a violation of human dignity,” the lawyer noted.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found strip searches to constitute degrading treatment when not justified by compelling security reasons and/or due to the way they were conducted.
But the practice has been used frequently by Turkish security forces against people suspected or convicted of political crimes. In August it was reported that Eylem Oyunlu, who was detained with her 10-day-old baby on the charge of aiding a terrorist organization, was strip searched in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır. Back in May 2018 Pınar Aydınlar, a famous folk singer and party council member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was beaten by guards at İstanbul’s Bakırköy Prison for Women after refusing a strip search.
Some of the women said the officers conducting the search were laughing as they were undressing. Human rights defender and HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu says strip searches are indeed conducted to humiliate the detainees.
In May 2019 a five-months-pregnant woman, detained for alleged membership in the Gülen movement, was strip searched and requested to squat. Human rights activist Natali Avazyan said she was subjected to a strip search when she was detained for a tweet critical of pro-government journalist Hilal Kaplan in 2017.
According to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), only same-gender staff should search persons deprived of their liberty, and any search requiring a woman to undress should be conducted out of the sight of male custodial staff.
In a guide published by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force in March 2014, it is stated that any counter-terrorism measure related to the searching of persons must be prescribed by law, and strict and precise guidelines must clearly specify the circumstances in which such measures may be used and specify the conditions that must be obeyed by those applying the procedure. Even if a law authorizes — within the context of a personal search or a strip search — an agent to request a person to remove an overcoat, jacket, gloves, hat, sunglasses or any other item that may be used to conceal the person’s identity, the request may only be made when the agent seeks to confirm the identity of a person, or has reasonable suspicion that the person is hiding a weapon underneath items.