Sexual harassment and unlawful strip-searches in Turkish prisons and detention centers were protested on Twitter on Tuesday after human rights activist and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu brought the issue to parliament and started a campaign on social media.
“Don’t stay silent against strip-search” was widely shared with the Turkish hashtag #CiplakAramayaSessizKalma by activists and women who were subjected to harassment in prisons or police custody. The social media campaign was launched to raise awareness about increasing reports of sexual violence in prisons towards inmates, detainees and also relatives of inmates.
In a YouTube video, Gergerlioğlu discussed the matter with fellow HDP member and lawyer Filiz Kerestecioğlu. “Strip-searches need to follow a protocol; however, what we are seeing is that they have been practiced randomly and become a means of subjugation. There have been reports of women who recently gave birth being strip-searched as well as women during their menstrual cycle,” he said. “We have even heard about toddlers and babies being strip-searched, and guards searching inside their diapers.”
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 their person. 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.
Gergerlioğlu asked, “in an age where there are X-rays and other technological devices, what is the meaning of carrying out these searches?”
He also pointed out that not only inmates but family members who come to visit are also sometimes subjected to such humiliating practices as strip-searches. In some cases, women reported having to breastfeed in rooms with cameras.
Kerestecioğlu explained that torture did not only involve physical violence and humiliation and that insults were also a type of torture. “If there is harassment in prisons, then this needs to be heard. Those who are subjected to harassment should not be embarrassed. The perpetrators are the ones who should feel ashamed,” she said.
She added that sexual subjugation of inmates is a form of “enemy penal law” wherein inmates and their families, mostly because of their political stance, are seen as the “enemy” and penalized in ways that are not lawful.
Gergerlioğlu, who has been actively trying to raise public awareness on these matters, also gave an interview to the Duvar news website and said that authorities have been trying to cover up reports of harassment.
Reminding of an incident during which 30 university students who were detained the same day and subjected to humiliating strip-searches during which the guards were laughing at them, Gergerlioğlu said the young women were still psychologically scarred from the experience.
The students were detained in the western city of Uşak, and after spending five days in a police detention center were brought in front of a judge on September 4. Twenty-two of them were released by the court pending trial. They were accused of membership in the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has long resided in the US.
The Turkish government accuses the movement of masterminding a coup attempt in July 2016 and labels it a terrorist organization. The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
A worse kind of inhuman 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. One detainee said she had to go through the process twice.
“Turkish society is conservative so women find it difficult to talk about harassment even with their families or lawyer. Talking to the media is nearly impossible for them; however, this is a form of sexual violence and it needs to be reported,” he said.
Gergerlioğlu added that it was not only women who experienced this violence as male inmates were also threatened with sexual assault by guards. He said some male inmates reported having to completely strip and turn around and face the wall while the guards searched them, which was an unnerving experience for them during which they felt completely exposed.
He said inmates were so humiliated and threatened during strip-searches that they did not even want to go to the hospital when they were sick because it meant they would be searched upon return.
The European Court of Human Rights 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 frequently used by Turkish security forces against people suspected or convicted of political crimes.