Turkish court acquits university students strip-searched during detention

A court in western Turkey has acquitted 17 university students out of 23 who were detained on accusations of links to the Gülen movement and who were strip-searched in police custody, causing widespread outrage, the Kronos news website reported on Wednesday.

Six of the students received suspended sentences.

The students were retried after their earlier convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.

They were accused of staying in Gülen-affiliated student houses.

Detained by the police for five days in September 2020, they alleged that they were strip-searched in custody, which led to a significant outcry, particularly on social media.

One of the students talked to the press about her ordeal on condition of anonymity. According to her account, the improper treatment started when they first arrived at the police detention center. They were asked to remove their headscarves (hijabs) in front of a group of male and female officers. In Islam Muslim women are required to observe the hijab in front of any man they could theoretically marry, making this episode quite unnerving for them.

A worse kind of inhumane treatment was to come when they were subjected to strip-searches. They were asked to get undressed by female officers in front of them and to squat. The witness said she had to go through this process twice.

She said the students who wanted to consult with their lawyers during the process were not allowed to do so. Claiming that they had been following them for two years and that they “knew about everything,” the police tried to get them to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

The young woman also talked about the suffering of a woman named Büşra Elbüken, who was detained only two days after surgery. Elbüken had to get her dressing changed but wasn’t taken to a doctor. The witness said Elbüken was in a lot of pain and that she would never forget her moaning. When they were finally taken to the hospital for a legally required doctor’s visit, she was told by the doctor that “I’m only looking to see if you sustained any blows.”

One of the students filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office against the mistreatment, but authorities have denied any such wrongdoing had taken place. After the incident was made public scores of women came forward about abuse and unlawful strip-searches in Turkish detention centers and prisons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the 2013 corruption investigations, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following an abortive putsch in 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

In addition to the thousands who were jailed, scores of other Gülen movement followers had to flee Turkey to avoid the government crackdown.

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