Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>


Torture remains common in Turkey today. In the twenty years following the 1980 military coup, successive governments maintained a system of detention and interrogation that encouraged torture and protected the perpetrators. As a result, more than four hundred Turkish citizens died in custody apparently as a result of torture, with 45 deaths in 1994 alone. In the past five years, changes to laws and procedures have significantly reduced the frequency and severity of torture to the extent that it is now realistic to hope that such deaths in custody may be a thing of the past.

The most important changes were improvements to medical checks, shortening of pre-trial detention periods and, in 2003, recognition of the right of immediate access to legal counsel for all detainees. It is well-established that access to legal counsel is the single most effective safeguard against abuse in custody. This last step significantly raised the standard of formal procedural and legal protections against torture in Turkey. Its formal protections are now among the strongest in Europe.

Torture and other ill-treatment persist in Turkey because in some detention facilities police and gendarmes (soldiers who police rural areas) ignore the new safeguards. Certain police units deny or delay detainees access to a lawyer, fail to inform families that their relatives have been detained, and attempt to suppress or influence medical reports which record ill-treatment. The special protections for child detainees are still not reliably applied by the police.

Governmental as well as nongovernmental organizations interested in this issue continue to receive substantial numbers of torture allegations. In the first four months of 2004 the Human Rights Directorate of the Office of the Prime Minister recorded that it had received fifty complaints of torture and ill-treatment in police custody. The Turkish Human Rights Association reported 692 incidents of torture and ill-treatment by police in the first six months of 2004.2 During the first eight months of 2004, 597 people applied to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation for medical attention for torture, ill-treatment as well as illness arising from prison conditions.3

In recent months, most detainees reporting ill-treatment describe beatings, threats and insults, but some also complain of blindfolding, sexual assault, hosing with cold water, electric shocks, and hanging by the arms. The European Commission’s assessment of progress in combating torture in its 2003 Regular Report on Turkey’s progress towards accession is entirely accurate when it says: “While implementation has led to some concrete results, the situation is uneven and torture cases persist.”4 Turkey’s performance this year is likely to earn a similar assessment. It will be difficult for the European Commission to declare in outright terms that Turkey has met the Copenhagen Criteria5 while significant numbers of Turkish citizens are still being abused in police custody.

The Turkish government concedes that there are problems with implementation, and has declared zero-tolerance for torture.6 The question is whether the government is prepared to do what is necessary to impose this zero-tolerance in practice. Strong public statements condemning torture, training police officers, and effectively prosecuting perpetrators are important and necessary actions but they are unlikely to achieve the desired measurable results in the very near future, and certainly not by December 2004. The government could, however, improve implementation within weeks by stepping up its supervision of places of detention and interrogation. Lack of supervision allows security forces to disregard the law and regulations. In fact, lack of supervision is really the last vestige of the old system which permitted and encouraged torture .

[2] Turkish Human Rights Association press release: İşkence Yaygın ve Sistematiktir (Torture is widespread and systematic), September 10, 2004. This figure includes reports of ill-treatment outside police stations, including, for example, police ill-treatment in demonstrations.

[3] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Metin Bakkalcı, deputy president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, September 13, 2004.

[4] European Commission, 2003 Regular Report on Turkey’s progress towards accession, November 2003, para. 1.3.

[5] The economic and political criteria for EU membership were determined at the Copenhagen meeting of the European Council in 1993. The political criteria require that candidate countries should have achieved “the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.”

[6] “Our government has adopted a policy of zero tolerance to torture and ill-treatment,” Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu, speaking to a group of provincial governors in Istanbul,  Abhaber, EU-Turkey News Network, March 1, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>September 2004