US Human Rights Report: Torture and mistreatment in police custody increased in Turkey in 2017

File photo.

Torture and mistreatment in police custody increased in Turkey in 2017 despite the presence of closed-circuit cameras installed by the Turkish government in 2012, and police abused detainees outside police station premises, according to a report by the US State Department.

The State Department released its 64-page Turkey 2017 Human Rights Report on Friday. The report stated that based on human rights groups’ reports on violations in Turkey, during the first 11 months of 2017 the Human Rights Association (İHD) received 423 complaints related to abuse while in custody. It also reported that intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common and that victims hesitated to report abuse due to fear of reprisal.

According to the report, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV -HRFT) reported that in the first 11 months of the year, it received 570 complaints, including 328 allegations of torture and inhuman treatment by government authorities. The government declined to provide information on whether it undertook investigations into allegations of mistreatment in prisons or detention centers during the year.

It was also stated in the report that there were some unconfirmed reports of disappearances during the year, some of which human rights groups alleged were politically motivated. The report said opposition politicians and respected human rights groups claimed that at least 11 abductions or disappearances of individuals with alleged Gülen ties or who opposed the government occurred.

The US report’s section on disappearances continued as follows: “For example, in June the 12-year-old son of agricultural engineer Cemil Koçak witnessed the disappearance of his father in Ankara after their vehicle was hit by another car. When Koçak exited the car to assess the damage, three persons forced him into another car and drove away. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), there were ‘credible grounds’ to believe Koçak and at least three other men had been forcibly disappeared by government agents.

“Similarly in April Önder Asan disappeared in Ankara. Six weeks later, his family located him in an Ankara police station. Asan alleged that before being transferred to official custody, he was interrogated and tortured by security forces. Most of the victims identified by HRW had been dismissed from government jobs under the state of emergency. Government officials disputed HRW’s claims but declined to provide information on its investigative efforts, if any.”

Some excerpts from the section of the report on “Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” are as follows:

In its World Report 2017, HRW concluded: “The weakening of safeguards against abuse in detention under the state of emergency was accompanied by increased reports of torture and mistreatment in police detention, such as beating and stripping detainees, use of prolonged stress positions, and threats of rape as well as threats to lawyers and interference with medical examinations. While many allegations arose in relation to members of the military and police detained in connection with the coup attempt, they were not the only groups who reported mistreatment after the coup attempt, and Kurdish detainees in the southeast had reported similar abuses during the prior year.”

Credible reports suggested that some doctors would not sign their names to medical reports alleging torture due to the fear of reprisal, meaning victims were often unable to get medical documentation that would help prove their claims. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) alleged that police tortured dozens of civilians in Hakkari Province in August following the death of a special forces officer in counter-PKK operations. Following release from detention, 10 detainees filed claims of torture against police at the local prosecutor’s office. Police dismissed the torture claims as terrorist propaganda. Authorities opened an investigation that continued as of year’s end.

Two journalists detained in August 2016 in connection with the closure of Özgur Gündem, reported being beaten and threatened with rape by police officers. In July the İstanbul prosecutor’s office decided not to prosecute due to lack of evidence, dropping the charges and the investigation. A report by the HRFT profiled the suspicious death of Hamza Kacmaz, a prisoner in Antalya who allegedly committed suicide on August 19 by hanging himself in his prison cell. The autopsy report showed no signs of strangulation and noted signs of handcuffing. Other inmates testified that Kaçmaz sustained beatings and torture prior to his death.

The İHD reported receiving a credible complaint from a former police officer who claimed that he and others accused of ties to the Gülen movement were tortured while in police custody in April. The former officer reported that groups of detained police officers were kept in small cells and that when most of the police station staff had departed for the evening, on-duty police took these detainees one- by-one into an interrogation room, stripped them, hooded them with plastic bags, and threatened them with sexual assault. The İHD did not specify the location of these reported acts or the name of the victim, who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns.

A March report issued by the HDP catalogued several similar allegations of prisoner mistreatment, noting the case of Ergin Aktaş in İzmir Menemen Prison, who lacked both his arms and claimed that he received insufficient physical assistance in prison. The HDP reported several alleged suicides among accused Gülenists imprisoned since the coup attempt as well as the suicides of four female inmates in the southeast by self-immolation, allegedly in response to torture.

In a case highlighted by HRW, at a February 16 hearing of 64 alleged Gülen members, seven defendants testified they were tortured by police and forced to sign false statements. One of the defendants, former preschool head Hasan Kobalay, testified that in November 2016, while at the counterterrorism branch of the Kırıkkale police station, he was stripped, blindfolded, gagged, handcuffed, and sprayed with cold water on his genitals. In an October 31 statement, the Ministry of Justice responded that a government investigation found the allegations to be “groundless” and consequently decided not to pursue prosecution of the alleged perpetrators.

The government asserts a “zero tolerance” policy for torture. HRW maintained that the organization was “not aware of any serious measures that have been taken to investigate credible allegations of torture.” According to 2016 Ministry of Justice statistics, the government opened 42 criminal cases related to alleged torture. The government declined to provide data on its investigations into alleged torture.

According to media reports, some military conscripts endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in suicide.

On July 30, the army general staff released a statement regarding the detention of a group of male Syrian refugees subjected to degrading treatment while in custody, including being forced to wear belly-dancing costumes. The general staff confirmed that it had started administrative and judicial proceedings against the four soldiers involved, including the arrest of three soldiers.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. On December 13, 2017 the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced on April 18, 2018 that the Turkish government had jailed 77,081 people between July 15, 2016 and April 11, 2018 over alleged links to the Gülen movement.

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