(Istanbul) - Turkish authorities should prevent any repeat of the 2007 and 2008 ill-treatment of demonstrators in Istanbul by police on International Workers' Day, May 1, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a letter to the Director General of the Turkish National Police, Human Rights Watch said that all officers policing May 1 demonstrations across Turkey should wear helmets with visible identification numbers, a scheme introduced in June 2008 to aid in identifying any who use arbitrary and excessive force against demonstrators. The inability to identify officers involved in such abuse has been an obstacle to prosecution in previous years.
"Despite the shocking scenes during last year's May 1 demonstration in Istanbul, we hear that the police on duty in Istanbul may not be issued numbered helmets this year," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But the abusers aren't going to change their behavior if they know they can still get away with it."
The policing of May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul in 2007 and 2008 was widely criticized by human rights groups in Turkey, and concerns were raised by the European Commission in its 2007 and 2008 regular reports on Turkey.
Human Rights Watch's December 2008 report, "Closing Ranks against Accountability: Barriers to Tackling Police Violence in Turkey" includes interviews with a number of individuals who had lodged complaints with the public prosecutor alleging ill-treatment by police officers during May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul in 2008. It also raises concerns about the violent dispersal of demonstrators assembled outside the trade union confederation DİSK's Istanbul headquarters on that day and repeated police raids on the DİSK offices. Demonstrators at the Istanbul provincial branch of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi: ÖDP) were also ill-treated by police. In both cases there is evidence of this in the form of video footage.
With the exception of the prosecution of one police officer, who is awaiting trial on charges of kicking a demonstrator in the head on May 1, 2008, there has been no progress in any of the other investigations of incidents reported in 2007 and 2008, and some cases have been closed.
Many of the decisions by prosecutors not to pursue a criminal investigation or by police and Interior Ministry inspectors not to discipline members of the Rapid Deployment Force have been attributed to an inability to identify the officers involved because they wore unmarked uniforms and masks. In other cases administrative authorities have refused to grant permission, as required by law, to investigate the police and senior officers.
"Excessive use of force against and ill-treatment of demonstrators by police remain a serious problem in Turkey," said Sinclair-Webb. "The failure to hold police to account for these abuses is an endemic problem."
Human Rights Watch's report also documented police ill-treatment of demonstrators in the city of Van during demonstrations on March 22, 2008 to mark the New Year festival of Newroz/Nevruz mainly celebrated by the Kurdish population. Two individuals died in Van as a result of fatal shootings.
"Over a year after the fatal shootings and police ill-treatment during the 2008 Newroz demonstrations in Van, there has still been no progress with the investigations," said Sinclair-Webb. "The police violence and the lack of accountability continue, not only during May 1 demonstrations in Istanbul, but also in other big cities in Turkey and particularly in the southeast."
The most recent incident that caused public outcry was during a demonstration in the southeast town of Hakkari on April 23. Television news channels broadcast footage of a masked member of the police Special Operations unit beating a 14-year-old in the head with a rifle butt and kicking him. Human Rights Watch has learned that the police officer has been suspended pending an investigation.
Human Rights Watch's December 2008 report contains detailed recommendations to the Turkish government on combating police violence. Recommendations relating to demonstrations include:
- Establish an effective independent police complaints authority to investigate police misconduct promptly, leading to the prosecution of offenders;
- Clarify laws to make certain that it is explicitly stated that the use of lethal force is a means of last resort and used only where necessary to protect life;
- Strictly monitor the use of pepper gas and tear gas and initiate prompt, independent, and thorough enquiries into their reported misuse and excessive or arbitrary use;
- Investigate commanding officers in cases of serious human rights violations by the police;
- Impose disciplinary sanctions on law enforcement officers who commit serious abuses.