Turkish police, gendarmerie commit abuses in earthquake zone: rights groups

Turkish law enforcement officers in the region devastated by earthquakes in early February have beaten, tortured and otherwise ill-treated people they suspect of theft and looting, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

According to the rights groups, officials have also failed, in some cases, to intervene to prevent individuals from violently assaulting other people they allegedly suspected of crimes.

“Credible reports of police, gendarmes and military personnel subjecting people they suspect of crimes, to violent and prolonged beatings and arbitrary, unofficial detention are a shocking indictment of law enforcement practices in Türkiye’s earthquake region,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Law enforcement officials are treating the state of emergency for the natural disaster as a license to torture, otherwise ill-treat and even kill with impunity.”

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep – home to around 2 million people and on the border with Syria – as people were sleeping on February 6 was followed by dozens of aftershocks, including a 7.5-magnitude temblor that jolted the region in the middle of search and rescue efforts the same day.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch interviewed 34 people and, where available, reviewed video footage regarding 13 cases of violence perpetrated by police, gendarmerie — police in rural areas — or soldiers deployed to the area, involving 34 male victims. Researchers heard additional accounts and saw videos of other people being severely beaten by security forces but were unable to fully corroborate these incidents. The people interviewed included 12 victims of torture or other ill-treatment, two people who gendarmes threatened at gunpoint, witnesses, and lawyers.

“All victims, including those who are refugees, have a right to justice and reparations for the harm they have endured. The authorities must launch criminal investigations without any delay, into all cases of torture and other ill-treatment by police, gendarmerie and other law enforcement officials and bring those responsible to justice,” said Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Europe director.

The Turkish government declared a state of emergency in the 11 provinces affected by the earthquakes.

Following the earthquakes, unverified videos showing people in uniform attacking civilians who were suspected of looting damaged buildings made the rounds on social media, sparking outrage.

Ahmet Güreşçi died in custody after he and his brother Sabri allegedly looted a liquor store in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, where the devastating earthquakes hit the hardest.

Güreşçi was allegedly beaten to death by members of the Altınözü gendarmerie unit. His brother, Sabri, who was also detained and reportedly subjected to maltreatment, is still recovering. Three gendarmes who are accused of beating Ahmet Güreşçi to death have been suspended from duty.

Journalists who are reporting on the shortcomings of the government’s earthquake response are facing immense pressure. Turkey’s media watchdog on Wednesday penalized, through fines and broadcasting bans, three TV stations due to their reporting critical of the government’s post-quake response.

Turkish prosecutors have launched an investigation into Seyhan Avşar, a reporter from the pro-opposition Halk TV station, for reporting on allegations of mistreatment surrounding the death of Ahmet Güreşçi.

Front Line Defenders earlier called on Turkish authorities to stop the violence, legal harassment, arbitrary arrests and threats against human rights defenders in the region affected by devastating earthquakes.

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