Human Rights WatchWorld Report ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

World map Turkey



Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


Human Rights Developments

The continuing scandal surrounding illegal formations within the state security forces, the rise of political Islam, and the armed conflict in the southeast framed the human rights and political agenda in Turkey in 1998. Despite vigorous debates among state officials and in civil society on the “rule of law,” laws continued to be applied arbitrarily, especially to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The military, through powers that it was granted in the 1982 constitution, continued to exert influence over politics in a manner largely incompatible with the standards of democratic states. National political parties with pro-Islam, pro-Kurdish, or leftist tendencies and their local branches were harassed or simply shut down. There were violent assaults against human rights advocates, and offices of human rights groups were occasionally closed. Freedom of expression was often curtailed by abusive and arbitrary police action and through legal prosecution; non-violent demonstrators, writers, and journalists were arrested; and several publications were closed down during the year. Although high-level state officials condemned the use of torture and promised reforms, torture in detention continued to be widespread, and those accused of torture received lenient or no punishment in several high-profile cases. Poor conditions prevailed in prisons. Amidst the persistence of severe human rights violations, a growing number of state officials, judges, and parliamentarians began to raise questions about the system that permits such severe abuse and an environment of impunity for the abusers.

Throughout 1998, Turkey was governed by a minority coalition government led by the center-right-wing Motherland Party (ANAP), which came to power after the military forced the government of Necmettin Erbakan, head of the pro-Islam Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), to resign in June 1997. Although the new government of Mesut Yilmaz was supported by the military and the mainstream media, the new prime minister immediately came into conflict with the National Security Council—an “advisory” body that enables the military to exert influence over politics— when he called for a softer approach towards the Islamists.

When Mr. Yilmaz took office, he designated 1998 as the “year of law,” promising to change Turkish legislation, especially the penal code, to confront illegal formations within state security forces that have often been associated with serious human rights abuses, and to address deep flaws in the “rule of law.”

The ongoing scandal about the state security forces’ use of ultra-nationalists and members of organized crime—so-called “illegal gangs”—to commit human right abuses remained in the forefront of Turkish political debate. Parliamentary and government investigations into the Susurluk scandal—a car accident in 1996 that first revealed concrete evidence of ties between the securityforces and fugitive ultra-nationalists—resulted in little or slow legal action. In 1998, several cases against alleged members of “illegal gangs” were under way, but investigations that might implicate high-level bureaucrats proceeded slowly. A number of incidents during the year, including the arrest of those suspected of having attempted to assassinate a prominent human rights activist, Akin Birdal, and Interpol’s apprehension of an infamous organized crime leader and ultra-nationalist, Alaaddin Cakici, who was carrying a government-issued diplomatic passport, underscored the extent to which organized crime had infiltrated the security forces.

As a belated positive development following the inconclusive first Susurluk investigations, the trial of two members of the parliament, Mehmet Agar, former head of the security department, and former minister of justice and of internal affairs consecutively; and Sedat Bucak, a parliamentarian and wealthy landlord in the southeast, began in April. The indictment against Mr. Agar and witness testimonies suggested that he was aware of, if he did not authorize, the illegal activities of these “gangs.”

On May 12, 1998, Akin Birdal, head of the Human Rights Association, was shot six times through his lungs and leg. Mr. Birdal survived the shooting. This vicious attack followed a reckless campaign in the mainstream press against Birdal and several liberal columnists. The trial of eleven individuals allegedly implicated in the attack, including one ultra-nationalist army sergeant, was pending as of this writing.

During 1998, the military continued to exert pressure on the political process, and in particular on political Islam, which the chief of staff described in March as the “number one enemy of the principles of modern Turkey.” In January the Supreme Constitutional Court banned the pro-Islam Welfare Party in a verdict based primarily on statements by the party’s leaders and members. Some Islamist politicians, such as Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were also prosecuted for their statements on the role of religion in society. In September, the Diyarbakir State Security Court sentenced Mr. Erdogan to one year of imprisonment and a lifetime ban from all political activities. In September, the head of the Worker’s Party (IP) began serving a one-year prison sentence for peaceful comments he had made at a televised debate among the leaders of all political parties during the 1991 election.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) also faced intense surveillance and harassment by the security forces. In 1998, several HADEP offices, including its central office in Ankara, were raided, and party administrators and members were detained and tortured. As of this writing, four party officials in detention await trial on charges of committing “separatism through publication” and “acting as the political branch of the PKK.” Four parliamentarians from the now-banned Democracy Party (DEP), a predecessor of HADEP before it was closed by the Supreme Constitutional Court in 1995, remained in prison. Three other former DEP parliamentarians were sentenced in 1998 on charges related to peaceful expression.

Five provinces in southeastern Turkey—where an armed conflict between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has raged since 1984, resulting in the deaths of approximately 35,000 people, mostly civilians, and the forced depopulation of thousands of villages and hamlets—remained under a state of emergency. There was little change in six neighboring provinces—provinces that had previously been under emergency rule—because extraordinary measures continued to give state-appointed governors extended and restrictive powers. Despite government promises to compensate villagers, little effort has been made to facilitate the return of displaced persons to their homes in the southeast or to compensate them for the destruction and loss of their property.

Although the armed conflict in the southeast lessened in intensity, both government forces and the PKK continued to commit serious human rights violations. Village guards—ethnic Kurdish villagers who function as government-appointed civil guards in remote areas of the southeast—continued to be implicated in many abuses, and civilians remained particularly vulnerable in the region. During a parliamentary human rights commission hearing in February, the governor of Batman was reported to have said that “methods beyond the accepted norms” were often used to convince villagers that they should not assist the PKK. Victims who petitioned the parliamentary commission described methods such as forcing villagers to walk on mine fields or torturing family members and neighbors. Several village guards stood trial during 1998 for crimes such as rape and the execution of civilians.

PKK members continued to execute civilians they suspected of cooperating with the security forces. In July, PKK members reportedly killed two girls, ages four and fourteen, after they failed to find their father who was the brother of the village headman. Three mayors in the southeast, who were said not to support the PKK, were kidnapped, and one was later murdered. In August, a bomb reportedly planted by the PKK killed seven people and injured more than one hundred in one of Istanbul’s most crowded historical marketplaces.

While the press in Turkey is largely free, laws limiting expression continued to be enforced arbitrarily, severely jeopardizing freedom of expression. In the past, some journalists—typically mainstream and highly regarded columnists—were able to engage in vigorous debate even on such taboo topics as the role of the military and of religion, and could criticize Kemal Ataturk and promote pro-Kurdish issues. Pro-Islamic, pro-Kurdish, or leftist writers, however, were not guaranteed the same freedoms, often facing harassment by the police and criminal prosecution.

In 1998, however, even prominent and well-respected journalists and writers were prosecuted under the Anti-Terror law. Among the most troubling of these cases was the imprisonment of Professor Haluk Gerger (released after nine months), journalist Ragip Duran (sentenced to ten months of imprisonment), and lawyer and human rights activist Esber Yagmurdereli (sentenced to twenty years), all on free expression charges. In addition, on March 21, the chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces issued a statement that banned two liberal mainstream columnists, Mehmet Ali Birand ( Sabah-Show TV ) and Yalcin Dogan ( Milliyet , NTV), and one reporter, Muharrem Sarikaya ( Hurriyet ), from reporting any news about the military, entering military sites, or interviewing military personnel. The ban was lifted three days later with no explanation.

Some three hundred issues of leftist, pro-Kurdish, or pro-Islamic publications were confiscated and numerous journals were closed down during the year. The government often invoked the Anti-Terror Law to punish political expressions of Kurdish identity. Ulkede Gundem (Agenda in the Land), a newspaper advocating the recognition of Kurdish identity, was fined approximately 40 billion Turkish Lira (U.S. $12,000) during the year and closed by court order for 312 days. Issues of Hevi (Hope), a weekly newspaper in Kurdish known for its non-violent stance, were also confiscated forty-three times during the first nine months of the year. In March, the Diyarbakir State Security Court sentenced Sefik Beyaz, former head of the Kurdish Institute, to one year of imprisonment and a fine of U.S.$100 for “making separatist propaganda by playing Kurdish music” during his election campaign in 1995.

Islamists critical of the government were also subject to sanctions. In February, 128 members of the Aczmendi sect were sentenced to terms of twenty months to six years of imprisonment for “insulting Ataturk and disobeying security forces.” They were originally arrested in 1996 for not following the regulations of the “modern dress reform” of Ataturk. During the 1998 fall school semester, universities refused to register female students who wore traditional Muslim head scarves.

The Supreme Radio and Television Board (RTUK), formed in 1994 with a broad and vague mandate to regulate television and radio, arbitrarily restricted freedom of expression. In 1998, it closed several national television channels (such as Kanal D and Show TV) as well as local channels (such as Kanal 21 or Metro TV of Diyarbakir) for several days for “using foul language,” “insulting individuals and institutions,” “featuring sexuality,” “instigating separatist propaganda,” or “airing programs in Kurdish” in some of their programs. Many RTUK decisions continued to be enforced even after they were overturned by court decisions. Several local radio broadcasting channels, whose producers were charged with “promoting separatism” or with simply violating the broadly defined “principles of broadcasting,” were occasionally shut down.

A number of court verdicts also upheld freedom of expression guarantees. In May, the Criminal Court of Istanbul acquitted officials of the Kurdish Culture and Research Foundation of “providing education in languages prohibited by law,” because they had never begun the Kurdish language classes that were the basis for the charges; however, the judge ruled that they could not conduct Kurdish language courses. A former State Security Court prosecutor, Mete Gokturk, who was tried for publicly criticizing the lack of judicial independence in Turkey, was also acquitted.

Government officials condemned torture, several legislative efforts attempted to curtail police abuses, and some police officers accused of ill-treatment were prosecuted, but torture in detention remained widespread. In late 1997, when Minister of Foreign Affairs Ismail Cem referred to torture as an agonizing disgrace in the country, he became the highest state official to date to have acknowledged the extent of the problem. Prime Minister Yilmaz sent an official circular to ministries calling for stricter enforcement of measures to prevent torture and ill-treatment of those held in police custody. However, during 1998, there were hundreds of credible reports of mistreatment and torture from ordinary crime suspects, as well as security detainees. Previous governments had passed legislation reducing detention periods, requiring immediate registration of suspects, and providing suspects with legal assistance during the early stages of detention. Nevertheless, the head of the Istanbul Bar Association, Yucel Sayman, announced that several precincts in the country failed to follow these regulations. Suspects were not informed of their rights, and the bar association was rarely asked to provide lawyers for them. Physicians who documented torture were also coerced by security forces to withdraw their reports, or even prosecuted at times. In March, the Izmir Criminal Court acquitted Dr. Eda Guver, who had been charged with “abusing her authority and violating the civil servants’ code” after she asked security forces to leave her office while she was examining victims. In September, four members of the security forces involved in Dr. Guver’s case were themselves charged with attempting to manipulate the results of a medical examination. They were ultimately convicted and issued a small fine.

Several police officers accused of torturing suspects stood trial during the year, but were ultimately given lenient sentences that will not deter abuse. A court acquitted ten policemen accused of torturing fourteen teenagers from the town of Manisa, despite the fact that Sabri Ergul, a lawyer and member of parliament, testified that he had witnessed the torture, and hospital records supported the charges of police brutality. The Manisa teenagers, eight of whom were under eighteen when they were detained, testified that they had been beaten, raped with truncheons, and given electric shocks. In March the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support their claims of torture and mistreatment. The judge in the case rejected the hospital reports as evidence when the prosecutor claimed that the tuberculosis diagnoses of the three teenager girls may be “due to their anguish for the crimes they committed.” The teenagers, who had been charged with being “members of a terrorist organization,” were later acquitted and/or had their convictions overturned.

In April, when six police officers were sentenced to five and a half years each for torturing a suspect to death in 1993, the defendants and about sixty plainclothes policemen brutally beat the victim’s sister and lawyer in the courtroom. The policemen appealed the verdict. In March, eleven policemen were arrested and charged with torturing suspects five days after an eighteen-year-old theft suspect died in police custody in Adana. Two years after the journalist Metin Goktepe died in police custody, the higher court overturned the verdict that had acquitted half of the accused police officers; a new trial was pending as of this writing.

In 1998, ten people were killed during a house raid in Adana and in Istanbul; witnesses and human rights observers reported no evidence of a shootout in either case, as claimed by the police. Extra-judicial killings by police forces during house raids or demonstrations had become common in Turkey after the Anti-Terror Law entered into force in 1991; between 1991 and 1994, 174 people died during house raids and peaceful demonstrations. In 1998, several police officers faced trial for extra-judicial killings they allegedly committed during previous years.

The police routinely used brutal force to break up demonstrations. In March, police in Ankara used pressurized water, fog bombs, and truncheons to disperse a demonstration of civil servants. Around eighty demonstrators were treated at nearby hospitals for respiratory problems and bruises. The Turkish Physicians’ Union protested the security forces’ use of “fog bombs with extremely harmful chemicals on the human body.” Police occasionally harassed the “Saturday Mothers,” relatives of missing people who hold weekly protests in Istanbul, and detained some participants for promoting illegal organizations.

Prisons remained poorly administered and underfunded. The prison administration and prisoners clashed over prisoners’ legitimate demands for improved conditions and, at other times, their quest for political control, but no serious structural reform was achieved. A parliamentary human rights commission launched investigations at four southeastern prisons, at the Istanbul Women and Juvenile Prison, at several detention centers and at police precincts. The commission reported in April that inmates were tortured by various methods, including reverse hanging by the arms, beating the soles of feet, and the use of pressurized water and electric shocks. Commission members themselves reported having seen evidence of torture on prisoners and in detention rooms. Commission members described finding tools, such as manual electric generators, wooden sticks, metal pipes and truck tires, that had initially been hidden from them. The investigating parliamentarians described as “atrocious” the conditions at the Juvenile Prison, where an undercover journalist from the mainstream media had witnessed during regular visiting hours seven or eight guards beating a child.





Republic of Belarus

Bosnia and Hercegovina



Czech Republic








The Russian Federation





United Kingdom


Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Asylum Policy in Western Europe



Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch