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(Istanbul) – The Erdoğan government’s use of force in a clampdown on protesters over the weekend has precipitated a deepening human rights and political crisis in Turkey. Human Rights Watch documented a huge wave of arbitrary detentions and police attacks on people who were on hospital premises, as well as on a hospital itself and on makeshift health clinics. With the trade union confederations declaring a strike on June 17, 2013, there were signs of further clampdown on demonstrations in the evening.  

“The police assault on a peaceful crowd in Gezi Park and teargas use in confined spaces showed a dangerous disregard for the well-being – and indeed the lives – of protesters and bystanders,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The repeated police violence against people who are dissatisfied with government policies has deeply polarized Turkey. The government urgently needs to change police tactics and issue a clear signal for restraint.”

Police intervention on the evening of June 15 brought to an end the 18-day occupation of Gezi Park at Taksim Square. The police fired rounds of teargas and plastic bullets in the park, including in an area clearly marked as a clinic. The police gave protesters a 20-minute warning.  The timing of the assault was particularly shocking given the large number of people in the park, swelled by supporters who included families and children.

Soon after the police emptied the park, many people took shelter in the Divan Hotel, next to the park. Photographs show people taking refuge there or being cared for by doctors for injuries or overexposure to teargas. The police threw teargas canisters into or near the hotel entrance, engulfing the area in a thick fog.  A Radikal newspaper journalist, İsmail Saymaz, who was in the hotel during the gas attack, described it to Human Rights Watch:

After we were gassed out of the park we fled to the Divan Hotel. There were hundreds of us: women, children, older people. Being teargassed in a confined space with no ventilation was a desperate experience. No one can help you and you can help no one. You feel you are drowning and around you are people fainting, vomiting, writhing around in pain.

The use of teargas in confined spaces, particularly against targets who pose no imminent threat to law enforcement or others, violates international standards on use of force as unnecessary and disproportionate.  Such use, as it may causeserious ill-effects including respiratory problems, nausea, and vomiting, may also violate the prohibition on inhuman treatment.

In cases against Turkey involving the use of harmful gases such as teargas and pepper spray, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has made clear its disquiet about such use and stated that if a harmful spray is to be used there have to be “clear instructions as to when [it] may be used, which should state explicitly that [it] should not be used in a confined area.” Anyone exposed should be granted immediate access to a doctor and offered measures of relief. In one case involving use of teargas against a detainee, the court found Turkey had violated the prohibition on inhuman treatment.

After many clashes overnight on June 15 – some lasting into the morning – between police and some protesters who assembled again in the surrounding streets, the police attempted to prevent all access to Taksim Square or Gezi Park. There were street protests on June 16 spreading to other neighborhoods, with considerable numbers of young men and women  repeatedly trying to assemble and shout slogans such as, “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere there is resistance,” despite the harsh police clampdown. In the Okmeydanı neighborhood, police shot 14-year-old Berkin Elvan  in the head with a teargas canister. He is in critical condition.

A Human Rights Watch representative visited the German Hospital near Taksim in the late afternoon and interviewed witnesses. They described police entering the hospital on two occasions pursuing protesters and firing teargas and water cannons at the hospital’s emergency entrance. Twenty-five-year-old Altuğ described how a group of riot police had chased him into the hospital 15 minutes earlier:  

I ran into a room in the hospital and locked myself in. They tried to force the door, then told me they wouldn’t touch me. I came out and they kicked and beat me. Yes, I am a protester but I have not used violence and I don’t want you to use my surname because I fear I will be arrested.

A health worker in the hospital who spoke to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity recounted two incidents from the previous night in which the police targeted the hospital and tried to chase and capture protesters:

At about 3 a.m. on Sunday police threw a gas canister into the hospital courtyard toward the casualty entrance and then turned a water cannon on the entrance. I recorded it on my phone. Sometime later riot police with unnumbered helmets chased two young men into the hospital and wanted to drag them away. One nurse in particular prevented it. The police had beaten one of the men really badly and he had two broken cheekbones and had to be sent on to Çapa Hospital. He was too afraid to lodge a complaint.   

Another health worker showed Human Rights Watch a gas canister that the police had dropped in the hospital but that had not gone off because the pin had not been removed. While Human Rights Watch was in the hospital, police fired a teargas canister at the terrace area on the first floor and gas overwhelmed people in the cafeteria inside.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the Medical Association’s reports that police detained four health workers –Dr. Savaş Çömlek and nurses Nazlıhan Özdamar, Şehri Yağcıkara,and Esra Fidan – from a makeshift hospital in Tarlabaşı near Taksim.

The use of force including use of teargas in and near medical premises in such circumstancesis an unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, as well as an interference with the right of injured protesters and others to seek medical assistance. In a 2012 court decision, Turkey was found to have violated freedom of assembly by unnecessary and disproportionate use of teargas near a hospital in Istanbul (Disk and Kesk v. Turkey, Application No. 38676/08, November 2012).

There are also widespread reports by lawyers at the Istanbul Bar Association of protesters being detained on the night of June 15 and the morning of June 16 and being held on buses for hours rather than taken immediately into custody. Until midday on June 16, only 12 people were known to be registered in police custody. The Istanbul Bar Association received scores of calls from people who had witnessed riot police apprehending and escorting away others, but lawyers at the association were unable to find any record of their detention in nearby police stations.

By the morning of June 17, the Vatan Police Headquarters’ and the Bar Association’s lists indicated that the number of detainees at the Security Branch at Vatan was 177, while 14 others were recorded as detained in the Organized Crime branch, although the Bar Association identified 22 people detained there. Another 42 people are recorded as being in custody in Beşiktaş, and seven in Şişli, both districts of Istanbul.

On June 16 a Human Rights Watch representative together with a group of four lawyers appointed by the Bar Association tried to gain access to Taksim Square to investigate reports that detainees were being held on buses near the Atatürk Cultural Center or in the center itself. The police denied the group permission to enter the square, citing security reasons, and denied that anyone was being detained anywhere in Taksim Square. As a result, Human Rights Watch is not in a position to independently verify the reports.

In the early hours of June 17 Human Rights Watch interviewed the sister of AslıVuslateri, whom police detained at about 7:30 p.m. on June 16 near her home in Cihangir. Vuslateri spoke with her sister when she was taken to the Vatan Security Directorate and told her that she had been held in a bus in Taksim Square for at least four hours.

Although in the case of multiple detentions, transporting individual detainees separately to the police station may not be practical, any preliminary detention of individuals on a bus or other informal location, in particular detention that lasts for hours at a time, must be fully recorded and accounted for. Any unacknowledged or unrecorded detention is unlawful, arbitrary, and makes detainees vulnerable to abuse. Any such reports of unrecorded detention should be fully investigated by the police inspectorate, Human Rights Watch said. 

Two lawyers present during the medical examination at the Haseki Hospital of about 50 detainees currently held at the Vatan Police Headquarters at around 1 a.m. on June 17 told Human Rights Watch that “around 15 percent” of those between ages 18 and 25 bore signs consistent with ill-treatment such as kicks to the legs and beatings. One seemed in a particularly bad state with a broken tooth and a swollen eye. Human Rights Watch continues to document the scale of injuries resulting from the violence.

Turkey is a party to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has strict obligations toprotect the rights to life, bodily integrity and security, freedom of expression,and peaceful assembly. All its policing operations should comply with the standards required by those obligations, and any infringement on fundamental rights and freedoms of others must be prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.

For example, when police do resort to force to disperse demonstrators, the United Nations Principles on the Use of Force require them in Principle 5 to minimize damage and injury, respect and preserve human life, and ensure that assistance and medical aid reach affected people at the earliest possible moment. The guidelines call for law enforcement officials to always exercise restraint, avoid unjustified escalation of violence, begin with nonviolent means, and progressively use force only when necessary and in a careful and planned manner.

The forcible evacuation of Gezi Park came two days after negotiations over the protesters’ demands.  A meeting between the prime minister and representatives of the Gezi Park protesters late at night on June 13 led to an announcement by Hüseyin Çelik, deputy chief of the ruling party and its spokesman, that the government would await a final court decision on the fate of the Taksim Gezi Park construction project that was the initial cause of the protests and suspend plans to go ahead with the project. Moreover, Çelik indicated that if the court gave a green light to building the proposed barracks-type complex, the project would be put to a plebiscite.

Along with this concession to the protesters came an ultimatum to the demonstrators to end their occupation of the park. Over the following days, the protesters’ platform, Taksim Solidarity, debated the issue but did not agree to the government’s demand to evacuate the site. On the night of June 15, following the first of two rallies by government supporters in Ankara at which the prime minster again issued an ultimatum to the protesters to leave, the police forcibly intervened with teargas and raids on the park to end the occupation and clear the site.

Although the occupation campaign began as a protest against government plans to build the barracks-style complex on the site, it has become the focus for a much wider expression of discontent with the Turkish government that has attracted the participation of huge numbers of young people from varying political backgrounds.

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