Public demands for change, a strengthening civil society, and European Union (E.U.) candidacy requirements are working together to force positive change in Turkey despite continuing determined resistance within the civil service, judiciary, and security forces. The past year has brought substantial legislative reform, but established patterns of violations are proving hard to eradicate.
- Police Abuses
- Freedom of Expression
- The Kurdish Minority
- Abolition of the Death Penalty
- Key International Actors
Since 1997, successive governments have improved legal safeguards against torture, culminating in the complete abolition of incommunicado detention in 2003. In practice, police and gendarmes (soldiers who carry out police duties in rural areas) frequently circumvent these protections, and in particular, obstruct lawyers' access to their clients. As a consequence, there are almost daily reports of beating during interrogation. A typical example was the ill-treatment of five children aged between eight and thirteen years of age who were detained on suspicion of accused of throwing stones at a police car in Mersin, southeast Turkey in July 2003. Police ignored laws which require that all detainees should have immediate access to legal counsel, and that minors should be immediately referred to the prosecutor's office for interrogation. Three of the children were held incommunicado overnight in the police station. They later complained that they were beaten by police officers. One of the children, fourteen-year-old E.A., received a medical report from Mersin State Hospital that described extensive bruising.
Freedom of Expression
Progress with regard to freedom of expression is mixed. In June 2003 parliament abolished the notorious article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law, under which many journalists and politicians had been imprisoned for non-violent "separatist propaganda." Courts have shown an increase readiness to acquit defendants indicted for radical or unpopular but non-violent political opinions that would formerly have earned a prison sentence. The eighteen-month prison sentences imposed on Human Rights Association deputy president Eren Keskin, ‹mit Efe, and Halil Dinler in May 2003 were notable exceptions. The three were convicted for attempting to hold a press conference about prison conditions in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. They were prosecuted under the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations. The abolition of article 8 did not undo the legacy of injustice, symbolized by the continued imprisonment of the four Kurdish parliamentariansóLeyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan, and Selim Sadak. They have been held at Ankara Closed Prison since 1994 following convictions under the Anti-Terror Law for peaceful parliamentary activities.
The Kurdish Minority
Lack of progress on the internal displacement of Kurdish villagers remained a key human rights concern. During their bitter armed conflict with the illegal armed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) from 1984 to 1999, Turkish armed forces forcibly evacuated hundreds of thousands of Kurdish villagers from their homes in the southeast. Most villagers are still unable to return to their property because of the threat posed by paramilitary village guards and uncleared mines, or because they cannot afford to restore their homes and local infrastructure. The majority of the displaced are still living in poverty and hardship in urban areas throughout the country.
Successive governments' return programs have been discriminatory, under-financed, and ineffective, existing in little more than name. Moreover, return is still a hazardous process. Three newly returned villagers were killed by landmines in separate incidents in 2003. In July 2002, Yusuf ‹nal and his two sons Abdurrahim and Abdulsamet were killed when they returned to Nureddin village in Mu_ province to collect their hay crop. Family members reported that a truck full of village guards came to stop them collecting the crop, and that they began to beat the three men. Fleeing relatives heard gunshots shortly afterwards. Twenty-four village guards are currently on trial for the murders, but to date courts have been very reluctant to convict serving members of the security forces, including village guards, for such offences.
Abolition of the Death Penalty
In 2002 Turkey made a substantial contribution to the international movement for abolition of the death penalty by removing capital punishment for all peacetime offences, and in November 2003 made permanent this commitment by ratifying the sixth optional protocol to the European Human Rights Convention. In January 2004 Turkey completed abolition of the death penalty by ratifying article 13, which covers wartime executions.
Key International Actors
The E.U. recognized Turkey's candidacy in 1999, but stated that Turkey should not proceed further until it had met the political criteria for membership, including "the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities." Since the aspiration to E.U. membership is widely shared by the Turkish public and business community, the accession process has acted as an incentive to reform. Set against this is a profound institutional resistance to transparency and democratic norms among the civil service, judiciary, and security forces that is acting as a counterforce to change. After a long period of delay, in which cosmetic reforms were offered as a substitute for genuine change, the reform process began to gain traction in August 2002 when a strongly nationalist coalition government passed a significant package of reforms that included the abolition of the death penalty. Since then, the center-right religious Justice and Development party (AKP) has maintained the legislative momentum. In November 2003 the E.U.'s annual Regular Report acknowledged progress but signalled that there is considerable work still to do before December 2004, when the Commission will make a decision whether or not to move forward to the next step in Turkey's candidacy.
In his report of November 2002 Francis Deng, the special representative of the U.N. secretary general on internal displacement, recommended that the Turkish government invite relevant intergovernmental organizations, including the U.N. Development Programme and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, to discuss what could be done to ensure that displaced villagers can return to their homes in dignity and safety. In October 2003 Turkish foreign ministry officials signaled that this meeting will go ahead.