Award-winning rights activist says torture systematic in Turkey

Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the 2018 winner of the prestigious Hessian Peace Prize for her work documenting human rights abuses in Turkey, said torture had become systematic.

Korur Fincancı was one of more than 1,000 Turkish academics who signed a 2016 petition calling for peace after a two-year ceasefire between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down and security forces used tanks and artillery to crush attempts by the militants to seize towns and cities across the mainly Kurdish southeast.

Now the head of Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation has been sentenced to 30 months in prison for signing the petition and for her contribution to a report prepared by her foundation on the Turkish military’s activities in the southeastern town of Cizre. 

For Korur Fincancı, the military campaign was part of a litany of abusive practices inherited by the Turkish Republic from its Ottoman predecessor. This long history of human rights violations includes the forced displacement of Kurds during the protracted struggle with the PKK, which has been in intermittent conflict with the state since 1984. 

It also includes massive violations in the wake of Turkey’s coups d’etat, massacres of minorities during periods of civil unrest, and the enforced disappearances of dissidents and Kurdish activists throughout the 1990s.

Then there are the revelations this month by a collaboration from nine international media outlets that Turkey is running a network of “black sites” where illegally renditioned prisoners are being held and tortured. The Human Rights Foundation says that since 1980, approximately 1 million people have survived torture in Turkey. That is to say one out of every 70 persons living in Turkey has been tortured.

“We haven’t been able to face up to these rights violations and raise our voices against them. If we had done so at the very beginning, today we’d be facing a very different picture. We have to sit down and face our history and all the rights infractions it entails,” Korur Fincancı told Ahval.

True to her word, Korur Fincancı has raised her voice against infractions throughout a career spent dealing with cases of torture that she says are on the rise under the current administration. But the AKP’s record has not always been so grim. In the early years after the party came to power in 2002, there was widespread optimism that it could break Turkey’s cycle of abuse as it prepared reforms to gain accession to the European Union, setting ambitious human rights targets, including a zero tolerance policy for torture. 

“None of this was achieved throughout 16 years of AKP governance. They did not implement any zero tolerance policy to torture – quite the opposite. Besides the widespread use of torture, we are in a position where torturers go unprosecuted,” she said.

The figures show an alarming trend that Korur Fincancı said pointed to systematic rights violations.

“In the year 2017, more than 5,000 people across Turkey applied for legal aid from the Human Rights Association on the basis that they’d been tortured. More than 500 applied to representatives of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey to be diagnosed ... for torture,” she said. 

The number of applicants remained high in 2018, with more than 2,600 people who said they had been tortured applying for legal aid and 558 applying for treatment in the first 11 months of the year.


The most stereotypical image of torture in Turkey is of feet whipping, or falaka, a practice that was commonly used as a punishment by Ottoman authorities. Nowadays, Korur Fincancı said, the falaka is still used on occasion, but other forms of torture are more common.

One of these involves cuffing prisoners hands behind their backs and pressing the backs of their knees while they lie face down on the ground. The pressure driving their knees into the ground causes excruciating pain, and can cause permanent damage.

Another technique is to make prisoners lie on the ground, their hands cuffed behind their backs, and then lift them so they are suspended by the handcuffs. 

Korur Fincancı she said the fight against torture must extend beyong medical treatment to preventative measures, and that means educating the public.

“Torture is a public health problem,” the doctor said. “If we can show this, there’s a chance we can prevent it.”

To do this, Korur Fincancı and her colleagues face a difficult struggle in a country where security forces have become almost untouchable when it comes to torture. The groundwork for this legal unaccountability was laid through legal amendments to police duties and authorities in 2007. 

This was a period when combat with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was at a high – more than 700 security officers and Kurdish militants died that year. The intensity of the violence helped the government pass laws that contradicted amendments designed to bring Turkey in line with European Union regulations.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued implementing reforms to comply with EU law, ratifying the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 2011. However, Korur Fincancı said, the government’s efforts failed to make the required progress thanks to its attempts to contravene the requirement for an independent monitoring mechanism. The alternatives it put forward proved lacking and were even insincere, said Korur Fincancı, and ultimately the AKP’s human rights reforms served as little more than window dressing.

“In fact there was window dressing in every area. In children’s rights, women’s rights, the right to life. They just adopted an attitude as though they were doing something to prevent torture,” Korur Fincancı said.

The figures back her point. While more than 500 people came to her foundation to receive treatment after they said they had been tortured in 2017, and thousands more applied for legal aid, the number of investigations opened into torture cases last year was just 42. 

Meanwhile, security forces have opened 26,000 cases against suspects they say resisted arrest.

“After police launch cases against them, people become hesitant to open (torture) cases ... or the withdraw them. Thus the judiciary protects the police, the use of torture with legal repercussions becomes more entrenched, and the police believe they are doing their duty under this protection,” said the doctor.

“This impunity indicates the police are under protection,” she said. “In fact the state is encouraging police to commit crimes, and turning them into criminals. If there were any punishment, they would not be able to commit this crime, and we’d have a chance to live in a society that shows more respect to rights. But impunity has risen to the status of law.” 

With the introduction of emergency rule after the coup, the purge and arrest of public officials has come to be counted as part of a struggle against terrorism, providing another layer of protection for security officers who commit torture and other infractions.

“And this arrangement applies to civilians – it’s the same as telling security officers we are in a state of civil war and their actions will be ignored,” Korur Fincancı said. “And that’s a very dangerous situation.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.