Turkish human rights activists face intense persecution as their prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, visits the U.S. this week.
Meeting with President Clinton Tuesday, Ecevit basked in praise for recent reforms and the Saturday release from prison of Akin Birdal, president of the Turkish Human Rights Association. At the same time, Birdal's organization came under renewed pressure in Turkey for its condemnation of recent prisoner deaths in the Ankara Closed Prison.
On Tuesday, as Ecevit met with Clinton, Human Rights Association members were among some 100 people detained and mistreated at a public meeting in Istanbul, followed on Wednesday by a raid on the Association's Istanbul office and the violent arrest of one of its board members, Saban Dayanan. Dayanan was set upon by police as he attempted to read a press statement condemning the Justice Ministry's handling of unrest in the Ankara prison. Video footage shows police officers surrounding and kicking him. He told Human Rights Watch, "They started to kick me on the floor. They dragged me to a van where four police sat on me. One of them closed my mouth. I was suffocating. Another tried to strangle me as they drove me to the police station." Dayanan was released without charge shortly afterwards. A medical report recorded injuries to his legs, back, and face. He made an official complaint to the prosecutor.
On Saturday, three days before the Clinton-Ecevit meeting, Turkey released Birdal from prison where he was serving a one-year sentence for mentioning "the Kurdish people" in a speech. (see HRW Press Release, "Imprisonment of Leading Turkish Activist Condemned", June 3 1999), Steadfastly critical of human rights violations committed under one government after another, the Human Rights Association has been subjected to sustained official persecution since it was founded in 1986. Its offices have been closed and bombed. At least ten members have been killed. Birdal himself nearly died in a May 1998 shooting provoked by groundless government accusations of his connection to armed organizations and apparently carried out with security force involvement.
Birdal's release from prison was a positive sign, coming only days after the recent releases of a number of imprisoned journalists as well as a renewed governmental commitment to curb torture. In a recent statement, State Minister for Human Rights Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik announced he wanted to "strike a sound and honest communication" with non-governmental organizations, and with Birdal's Human Rights Association in particular.
"We welcome the recent overtures by the Turkish government," stated Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe & Central Asia division. "But unless the government follows through with genuine change, we can only conclude they were limited gestures aimed at dampening US criticism during the Ecevit visit."
Human Rights Watch has called on the Turkish government to achieve a number of concrete benchmarks of reform before a November summit in Istanbul of the 54-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which President Clinton is scheduled to attend. These critical first steps include:
Abrogating all prison sentences imposed on people who express opinions non-violently.
Releasing those imprisoned for their peaceful expression, including Esber Yagmurdereli, a blind lawyer imprisoned since June 1998 under the Anti-Terror Law.
Abolishing incommunicado detention.
Taking steps to end the repression of Islamist political parties, parties representing the Kurdish minority, and human rights organizations.
Prime Minister Ecevit is in New York for meetings with Turkish business associations before returning to Turkey later today.