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Torture – Live and Well in Turkey

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, May 4 2010 (IPS) - Six years after the ruling Justice and Development Party government declared ‘zero tolerance’ for torture, the practice prevails in Turkey, human rights monitors in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern region say.

As part of its EU membership bid, the Turkish government has expanded legal protections against torture, which is explicitly banned in Turkish law and now carries a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence.

Detained individuals now have the right to immediately access legal counsel and limits have been placed on the amount of time they can be held in custody without appearing before a judge, though these provisions can be temporarily withheld in the case of terror suspects.

Despite such widely-acclaimed changes, torture is far from being history in Turkey.

According to data provided by the Human Rights Association of Turkey (IHD), documented cases of torture dropped consistently in the years immediately following the announcement of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy, before more than doubling in the year 2008.

Data for 2009 have not been released yet, but data obtained by IPS suggests that they’ll be slightly higher than in 2004, the year after the ruling party’s anti-torture initiative was adopted. That year, IHD recorded 1,040 incidents of torture.

“The biggest problem in Turkey is the problem of mentality,” Necdet Ipekyuz, a physician who administers free medical treatment to torture victims on behalf of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), told IPS in an interview in Diyarbakir. “[Suspects] are innocent until proven guilty. This mentality hasn’t sunken in enough among security units in Turkey.”

In 2008, the Justice Minister at the time announced that 4,719 people complained of torture, maltreatment, and being exposed to excessive force in the years 2006 and 2007 alone.

Sezgin Tanrikulu, a prominent human rights lawyer and former chairman of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, told IPS that the most widely-used methods of torture in contemporary Turkey are physical beatings, forcing detainees to listen to music at extreme volumes, and threats.

“Torture takes place in the street, while people are being detained, in official and unofficial detention centers, and prisons,” Tanrikulu said.

“In the past, people would be detained for 15 – 20 days, subjected to electric shocks, falaka, forced to hang [in awkward physical positions], cigarettes would be extinguished [on their bodies],” Ipekyuz, a former chair of the Diyarbakir chapter of the Turkish Medical Association, told IPS.

“These things still happen, but rarely,” he said, adding that physical beatings and psychological forms of torture, such as threats and insults, are currently the most widespread methods.

The switch to less severe torture methods has been triggered by a de-escalation of the conflict between the Turkish state and PKK guerrillas, legal reforms undertaken with the goal of harmonizing Turkish law with EU regulations, and struggles for change carried out by civil society actors, according to Ipekyuz. Moreover, the purpose of torture has also changed.

“The development of technology has made it easier to watch and follow people, listen to their telephone conversations, read their mail, record their voices from long distances, and collect evidence,” Ipekyuz told IPS. “The goal [of torture] is not to make people speak, but to make them own up to” what police purport to have documented them saying in monitored communication, he noted.

Another important change in Turkey’s torture situation concerns the profile of torture victims. According to Tanrikulu, children are currently tortured more often than they were in previous years.

Ipekyuz, the doctor, noted the same trend. “In the past, few children applied to TIHV for treatment,” he said. “Now, children younger than 15 apply.”

Minors are subjected to torture at demonstrations and verbally threatened and insulted when in police custody, according to Ipekyuz. “The police tell them, ‘we’re going to kill you, disappear you, we won’t let you go to school, you’ll never see your family again, we’ll do certain things to your mother and father, you’re a separatist,’” the physician told IPS.

In a recent report, Amnesty International notes that since 2006, thousands of minors have been arrested and faced prosecution as terrorists for allegedly participating in unauthorized demonstrations in Turkey.

Children are also subjected to beatings in police vehicles and in prison, where minors can be held in pre-trial detention for months, without access to school.

In January, through the agency of their parents, minors being held on terror charges at the Pozanti M Type Children’s Prison in the southern city of Adana claimed that officials there had sprayed them with cold water, beaten them with plastic pipes, and then poured salt in the resulting wounds. “Even the slightest problem can be a justification for torture,” parents quoted their children as saying.

According to Amnesty, children previously held at an adult prison in Adana consistently complained of “severe beatings” during transfer to the facility, suggesting that there’s “systematic ill-treatment.” Meanwhile, minors awaiting relocation from the adult prison to the one for juveniles asserted that they had “spent periods of more than one week in solitary confinement” before being transferred, according to the London-based human rights group.

One thing that has not changed about torture in Turkey, however, is that impunity is all but the rule for alleged perpetrators. “Administrative protection [for torture suspects] actively continues,” Tanrikulu says. “Judges tolerate torture. Prosecutors tolerate torture. Permission isn’t given for investigations,” the Kurdish lawyer told IPS.

Following a spate of particularly deadly demonstrations in southeastern Turkey in March 2006, the Diyarbakir Bar Association filed 76 separate official complaints of torture with relevant public authorities. None of them resulted in lawsuits, according to Tanrikulu, who was the Bar Association chairman at the time.

Impunity is not limited to the Kurdish southeast. An investigation by the human rights commission of the Turkish Grand National Assembly found that only two percent of the 2,140 Istanbul police officials subjected to administrative investigations for carrying out torture and maltreatment between the years 2003 and 2008 received punishment.

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