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Letter to the Turkish Authorities Regarding the Policing of the May 1 Demonstrations

Mr Oğuz Kağan Köksal

Director General of the Turkish National Police

General Directorate of the Turkish National Police



Dear Mr Köksal,

It was a pleasure to meet you last December during my visit with Minister of Interior Beşir Atalay. As you will remember, one of the main issues we raised during that meeting was evidence of continuing incidents of police violence against members of the public and constructive approaches to tackling the problem. We talked in particular about excessive use of force against demonstrators, and instances of the unmerited use of firearms sometimes resulting in death. Our detailed findings and recommendations were included in the December 2008 report "Closing Ranks against Accountability: Obstacles to Tackling Police Violence in Turkey," which we shared with the Ministry of Interior in advance of our meeting.

I am writing to you today specifically regarding the policing of the May 1 demonstrations to be held in cities across Turkey. We hope that steps will be taken to prevent some of the most serious police abuses that have marred previous such May 1 events.  In 2008  - as in previous years - a representative of Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of individuals who had lodged complaints with the public prosecutor alleging that they had been ill-treated by police officers in the course of May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul. We also reported on concerns regarding the manner in which the police dispersed demonstrators outside the trade union confederation DİSK's Istanbul headquarters and on the police attack on DİSK's offices, as well as on allegations of police ill-treatment of those gathered inside and outside the Istanbul provincial branch of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi: ODP).  As you are aware, both organizations lodged complaints against the police as a result of those incidents.

The policing of May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul in 2007 and 2008 was widely criticized by human rights groups in Turkey, and concerns were also raised by the European Commission in its 2007 and 2008 regular reports on Turkey. However, with one exception, Human Rights Watch knows of no prompt and effective investigation, much less prosecution, of the officers responsible for the May 1, 2007 and 2008 abuses.  Police have little incentive to end abuse as long as they are confident they will never be held to account. Impunity remains a serious impediment to bringing such abuse to an end.

It is of the utmost importance that you take a lead in implementing appropriate measures to prevent excessive use of force against and ill-treatment of demonstrators.  Any officers that nevertheless commit such abuse, as well as their superiors, should be held to account. You yourself have publicly condemned police officers who resort to disproportionate or excessive use of force, and reportedly stated to the press shortly after our December 2008 meeting that such officers could find themselves both expelled from the police force and facing heavy prison sentences (reported in Zaman newspaper, December 6, 2008).  In the lead-up to this year's May 1 demonstrations, it is particularly important for you to take appropriate steps to follow through on these commitments.

One of the serious obstacles to ending police impunity has been the frequent inability to identify individual officers of the Rapid Deployment Force (Çevik Küvvet), which is charged with public-order policing duties.   Members of the 16,500-strong Rapid Deployment Force wear a so-called "Robocop" uniform and helmet and often wear gas masks to protect them against the effect of tear gas. In previous years there has been no means of identifying an individual dressed in this way since their uniforms and helmets carry no ID or observable numbering system. A representative of Human Rights Watch monitoring last year's May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul observed that some members of the Rapid Deployment Force were wearing uniforms that did not even include arm badges indicating the province where they served.

Many of the decisions by prosecutors not to pursue a criminal investigation or by police and Interior Ministry inspectors not to apply disciplinary sanctions against members of the Rapid Deployment Force who were filmed assaulting demonstrators have been based on the inability to identify the perpetrator.

We therefore consider that the decision announced in June 2008 by the Turkish National Police Directorate to introduce helmets bearing a clearly visible system of identifying numbers for members of the Rapid Deployment Force constitutes a very significant measure for addressing this problem. The adoption of such numbered helmets has the potential to assist in identifying officers who abuse their police powers and sends a clear message to police officers that they will be held accountable for their actions if they are observed or filmed committing abuses.

However, it is with concern that we note press reports on April 22, 2009 (CNN Türk website and Hürriyet newspaper) suggesting that those officers responsible for policing the May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul will not be wearing numbered helmets this year. In order to confirm the accuracy of such reports, we made telephone contact with various departments of the Istanbul Security Directorate and the Ankara Security Directorate General Headquarters, but were regrettably not given a clear answer as to whether the police would or would not wear numbered helmets on May 1 in Istanbul.

We are writing to you to strongly urge that on May 1 this year in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Mersin, Diyarbakır, and all other cities where May 1 demonstrations are to be held, all police officers on duty in the policing of demonstrations are issued with numbered helmets that make it possible for them to be identified. We regard this measure, which we recommend be made mandatory in all public-order policing contexts, as an important demonstration of your sincere commitment to combating serious abuses of police powers during demonstrations and of ensuring that whenever such abuses do occur, the perpetrators will be punished accordingly.

Copies of this letter are sent to Minister of Interior Beşir Atalay and Istanbul Security Directorate Chief Superintendent Celalettin Cerrah.

We look forward to a continuing dialogue on this and related subjects

Yours sincerely,

Kenneth J. Roth

Executive Director

Human Rights Watch

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