(Istanbul, December 5, 2008) - A rising wave of police violence against the public in Turkey is linked to the Turkish government's failure to hold abusive officers to account, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 80-page report, "Closing Ranks against Accountability - Barriers to Tackling Police Violence in Turkey," documents 28 cases of police abuse against members of the public since the start of 2007, and examines official investigations of police conduct in those instances. The cases include fatal and non-fatal shootings by the police; ill-treatment and excessive use of force by police against demonstrators; and ill-treatment during or following identity checks. Those who file complaints against the police often find themselves put on trial for having "forcibly resisted" the police.

"Turkey needs to tackle its violent and trigger-happy policing culture," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "That can only happen if the criminal justice system holds the police to account for these serious crimes."

Police violence in Turkey has been exacerbated by changes to the law on police powers made in June 2007, which give police excessively broad discretion to use lethal force and encourage arbitrary stops and searches by police. Since the research for this report was finished in June 2008 there has been a spate of shootings by police officers in cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, Adana, Bursa, and Antalya. Seven of them were fatal.

The problem is compounded by the failure to adequately investigate abuses when complaints are made. The report documents a pattern of police interference with investigations, including attempts to conceal, contaminate, or plant evidence. Investigations by prosecutors last many months and even years, often with no result. Where a prosecution is commenced, trials also last for years and the rate of conviction is extremely low. Convictions rarely lead to prison sentences.

Amateur camera footage shows police beating 15-year-old M.K. (name withheld) at Van bus station during Newroz/Nevruz (Kurdish new year) celebrations in Van, on March 22, 2008. Celebrations were banned in Van on the order of the governor's office. Police used disproportionate force against those who assembled in spite of the ban and also against onlookers, indiscriminately beating them and firing rounds of plastic bullets and in some instances live ammunition. M.K and his father were interviewed by Human Rights Watch for the report "Closing Ranks against Accountability: Barriers to Tackling Police Violence in Turkey". © 2008 DİHA

"Victims of police violence we interviewed frequently told us that the police feel untouchable," Roth said. "That will only change if police officers who break the law are punished."

Motivated to meet conditions attached to its prospective European Union accession, Turkey has made important changes in law and in detention regulations in the last five years, providing better safeguards for those held in detention facilities. While the changes did bring a reduction of abuse in police custody for those detained under anti-terrorism laws, there was less impact in other areas of policing. Since the beginning of 2007, reports of police abuse have risen compared to previous years, especially outside formal places of detention.

Incidents of police torture or ill-treatment are now more often reported as occurring outside formal places of detention - in the street, during apprehension, in police cars, or out of the sight of cameras or witnesses. Police also show a readiness to use firearms, shooting unarmed demonstrators and individuals whom the police claim have failed to obey stop warnings, and sometimes killing them.

The report contains detailed recommendations to the Turkish government, including:

  • The establishment of an effective, independent police complaints authority to investigate police misconduct, leading to the prosecution of offenders;
  • Requiring police to report when they use stop-and-search powers, and giving the person stopped a form that includes the officers' names, identification numbers, and the reason for the stop;
  • Legal clarification that use of lethal force should be a means of last resort and used only where necessary to protect life;
  • Tamper-proof video and audio recording in police stations at all times; and
  • Action to ensure that trial hearings of law enforcement officials facing prosecution take place without undue delay.