Lawyers says torture on the rise in Turkey since 2016 coup plot

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly said his government has a zero tolerance policy against torture, but lawyers say there has been a substantial increase.

The president says torture is something from the past, but since the collapse of a peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, and a 2016 failed coup, reports of torture have mounted. The PKK has been fighting for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984. Meanwhile, the government blames the 2016 coup attempt on the Gülen movement, a secretive Islamist group formerly allied to the ruling party.

Three weeks after the 2016 failed putsch, Amnesty International's Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner said there was credible evidence of detainees suffering abuse and torture. "Ahead of the coup we were already receiving very serious reports of torture and ill-treatment, mostly in the southeast of Turkey," he said. "But what we saw after the violent coup attempt of July 15 was an explosion in the number of cases."

After the coup attempt, the government declared emergency rule and issued decrees removing crucial safeguards protecting detainees from ill treatment and torture.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said in a 2018 report that in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt, torture and other forms of ill treatment had been widespread, particularly in the period immediately after arrest.

“In relation to the violence in the southeast, torture and ill treatment continues to be widespread in the initial phase of custody and interrogation and is aimed primarily at coercing suspects to confess or to denounce other suspects of terrorist offences,” Melzer said. 

A collaboration of nine international media outlets reported in December that Turkey was running a network of “black sites” where prisoners were being held and tortured.

Lawyer Zehra Karakulak represents a detainee, Mehmet Ali Çetin, in the central Anatolian province of Kayseri who is accused of being linked to the Gülen movement.

Karakulak said that when she was allowed to visit Çetin for the first time, he started crying and told her he had been tortured under interrogation. 

“They put plastic bags on my client’s and other suspects’ heads and pushed them. He did not have any visible scars on his face or other parts of his body. He told me that the police who had tortured him had been very professional and had used ill treatment without leaving any scars or bruises,” she said.  

Karakulak said the behaviour of the police changed after the torture claims were made public by two opposition members of parliament, Sezgin Tanrıkulu and Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu. 

“I learned there from my client that the police treated them nicely for the first time and supplied their every need,” Karakulak said, adding that this was the first time she had heard such a comment in the last three years she had been representing such clients.

“Unfortunately my client did not want us to file a complaint of torture,” she said. 

The lawyer said that though she had filed some complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, most clients usually wanted to keep silent. “Especially in central Anatolian provinces, torture claims can easily be buried as there are no solidarity networks. Therefore victims feel alone,” she said. 

The Şanlıurfa Bar Association published a report in June on torture and ill treatment claims against 51 suspects who were detained in May in one neighbourhood after a clash between security forces and Kurdish insurgents. The report included detailed accounts of torture, witness testimony and visual materials. 

The report also provided a list of torture methods practiced in Şanlıurfa since 2015, such as prisoners being hung up by their arms and sexual torture. 

Abdullah Öncel, the head of the Şanlıurfa Bar Association, said there were sufficient measures against torture in the law, but they were not enforced.

“Torture has been normalised to such an extent that we as lawyers feel like we should thank police when we do not witness a form of torture and ill-treatment,” Öncel said.

The Ankara Bar Association published a report in May that said some 100 former diplomats accused of links to the Gülen movement had been subjected to torture and sexual abuse while in police custody. 

Six detainees interviewed by the association said they had been subject to threats and insults during interrogation and pressured to sign confessions. Five of the six said they had been tortured after being taken to a dark room marked “no entry” in Ankara police headquarters. The detainees told the Ankara Bar Association that individuals had entered the room where they were kept handcuffed and blindfolded, and forced them to their knees and struck them with batons. Four said they had been stripped and forced into the foetal position by their interrogators, who threatened to penetrate them anally with batons if they did not talk.

Erinç Sağkan, the head of the Ankara Bar Association, said people usually saw torture as only a physical form of violence, but it did not stop there.

“Especially in recent years psychological torture, threatening people through their wives and children, has become common,” he said. 

The Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into torture incidents following the report and the lawyers who prepared it have testified as witnesses. But Deputy Interior Minister Muhterem İnce said the lawyers were linked to the Gülen movement and dismissed the report as a plot. 

“It is unfortunate that political representatives use such rhetoric and normalise ill-treatment by such statements,” Sağkan said.