Human Rights Watch condemned the Turkish government's crackdown on those seeking to expose torture, beatings and other police abuses during the violent December raid of Turkish prisons.
Nimet Tanrikulu, former president of the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association of Turkey (HRA) was formally arrested Monday for participating in a non-violent demonstration against recent transfers of prisoners into isolation units at Turkey's new F-type high-security prisons.
"The Turkish government is trying to hide grievous violations. These people deserve to be listened to, not gagged and locked up," said Jonathan Sugden, the Human Rights Watch researcher for Turkey. Sugden is currently in Ankara investigating allegations of beatings and torture during the December prison transfers.
Since the transfer, the Turkish Human Rights Association has been attempting to collect evidence from prisoners, lawyers and released prisoners about the December 19 transfers. A paper the HRA published on Saturday contains evidence and testimony of severe beatings in gendarmerie transports, and beating and ritual humiliation on arrival at the F-type prisons in Edirne, Kocaeli and Ankara. The HRA has also tracked the regime of extreme isolation imposed on the more than one thousand inmates held in solitary and three-person units. In consequence the human rights group has been targeted for intense official pressure.
The Human Rights Watch representative, Mr. Sugden, was present on Monday when plainclothes police officers entered the national headquarters of the HRA in Ankara to question Husnu Ondul, association president, about a press briefing he had given earlier in the day. Husnu Ondul later told Human Rights Watch, "Here I am, with five of my branches shut down in the past six weeks-all because of our work on the prisons, without a doubt. My people are detained or raided almost every day?We are living in some of the worst days in the history of the association." The Human Rights Association was founded in 1986.
Husnu Ondul also complained that the association was receiving constant threats by telephone. Ankara local branch president Lutfi Demirkapi told HRW about a threatening phone call he received on January 5, when an unknown caller asked, "Are you still alive then? They are getting your shroud ready?"
Such threats are taken seriously by the HRA, which has lost ten members in armed attacks over the past decade. In 1998 its president Akin Birdal was nearly fatally wounded in such an attack. The bullet-scarred door of his office stands in the Ankara branch as a reminder.
"The attack on Birdal was prompted by unfounded official allegations. We are concerned because I have seen and heard similar allegations against the HRA while carrying out my investigations here," said Sugden. "Under the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, these people have not only a right, but a duty to document the truth about violations when they occur. It is the Turkish government's duty to protect and encourage human rights activists in their work, not to persecute them."
In the wake of the prison raids, five branches of the HRA have been closed-Izmir, Van, Gaziantep, Malatya, and Konya. On December 17, the Istanbul branch was raided and board members detained for several hours.
On January 6, Lutfi Demirkapi, president of the Ankara local branch of the HRA, was detained while attempting to make a press statement next to the human rights monument in the city center. He told Human Rights Watch: "I was grabbed by police officers and put in a police van with relatives of prisoners held at Ankara's Sincan F-type prison. The police kicked and beat the others. We were all taken to Ankara Police Headquarters and made to stand for five hours leaning against a wall. There were two women over fifty years of age and they were treated just the same."
Nimet Tanrikulu was detained together with Istanbul branch president Eren Keskin, a lawyer, and other branch members. After a night in police custody she was formally arrested, together with three members of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP). She is now held at Bakirkoy Prison for Women and Children.
Those detained had been visiting the headquarters of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the party of the Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, where they had attempted to leave a black wreath as silent criticism of his role in the opening of new prisons.