Turkish police impunity decree leads to rise in torture claims

The failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, ushered in a new era in Turkey. For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party, it galvanised their support and tightened their grip on power.

But for those opponents of the AKP, it spelled the beginning of dark times; the state of emergency declared shortly after the coup attempt and in place ever since has granted security and judiciary officials unmatched powers against those deemed to be enemies.

The ninth article in emergency decree number 667, implemented on July 23, 2016, days after the Turkish government survived the coup attempt, lifts public workers’ legal, administrative, financial and criminal liability under the state of emergency.

A prosecutor in the northeastern city of Trabzon was the first official to invoke this article in response to allegations of torture when he ruled to dismiss charges alleging that a police officer had tortured a newspaper distributor in front of his wife and children.

This ruling set a precedent that the judiciary has turned to in a long series of cases dismissing torture charges against public officials. The mass torture of Kurdish villagers in the southeastern province of Nusaybin and the images of Kurds stripped naked and beaten by police officers on a roadside in the western province of Muğla demonstrate the extent that security officers are protected from legal redress.  

This protection is one of the main reasons for an abrupt rise in incidences of torture in Turkey. Many incidents also go unreported.  

While the law ordinarily prescribes daily medical checks on detainees, this requirement has been lifted for the many detained on terror charges under the state of emergency.

Criminal courts refuse to record statements by suspects who say they have been tortured, arguing that this is not the matter being tried. 

Judges insist that suspects who claim to have been tortured must file criminal charges through the prosecution, and the courts are thus able to make use of statements that suspects say were obtained through torture.

A most striking example of this practice came in the trial of a teacher, identified as H.K.

The defendant gave a detailed account of the torture he was subjected to by police, who he said had stripped him naked, gagged him, held him under cold water, tortured and sexually assaulted him before threatening to do the same to his wife.

All this was made clear to the judge overseeing his trial. Yet that judge went ahead and sentenced H.K. to nine years and two months in prison, based on the very statements he said had been obtained through torture.

A report published by the human rights organisation Amnesty International contains many similar accounts of police beating or using batons and digits to rape detainees since the July 15 coup attempt. 

The families of detainees who have committed suicide while held in prisons or holding cells have also reported that these incidents occurred as a result of torture.

The type of torture described above is extreme, but it is only a part of the story; according to international norms, the appalling conditions that detainees are held in also constitute torture. The greatest victims of these conditions are the young children who have to live in prisons alongside their detainee mothers.

A mother identified by her initials B.U. who survived these conditions with her child and went on to seek asylum in Greece described the experience to Ahval.

As a detainee with suspected links to the Gülen organisation, followers of an Islamist cleric accused of orchestrating the coup attempt, B.U. was kept for a time in solitary confinement; during this period her baby was not allowed to stay in the cell with her.

 “Guards would bring machines to the mothers to collect breast milk for the babies at specific times. I had to pump the milk and pour it in a sink, which wasn’t fit for a child. It’s dirty, the child is afraid of the guards, she wants to eat but you can’t feed her, you can’t give her milk.”

B.U. described how her child was deprived of allergy treatment, how there was no fresh fruit or vegetables available to make baby food, how she was not even able to bring toys into the prison for her child.

In the end, she decided to entrust care of the child to her own mother, who was battling cancer at the time, rather than keeping her child in a cold and unhygienic prison cell with her. Yet for many mothers who do not have such support outside prison, that is not an option.

More than 700 babies are currently compelled to live under these conditions, according to recent statements by Abdüllatif Şener, a candidate for the main opposition Republican People’s Party in the June 24 parliamentary elections.

This is a prospect that has led many mothers facing prison to flee the country with their children to seek asylum abroad.

With prison standards taking a nosedive under the state of emergency, and as prisoners in overcrowded cells face severe deprivation and torture, many more will doubtless see such a journey as their only option.

A report on Turkey’s state of emergency published by Human Rights Watch states that 150,000 people have been investigated on terrorism charges, with the majority accused of links to the Gülen organisation or the Kurdish political movement.

Due to restrictions under the state of emergency and the detention of more than 450 lawyers working on these cases, it is impossible to actively record instances of torture.

Human Rights Watch provides the most comprehensive record of torture, with 427 cases reported in detention centres in 2017 and 489 reports of police torturing people not in custody. 1,988 instances of torture in prison were reported in the same time frame, including 22 children. There were 40 suicides in prison in 2017.