(İstanbul) – There is credible evidence that Turkish police and community “night watchmen” have committed serious abuses against at least fourteen people in six incidents in Diyarbakır and İstanbul in the last two months, Human Rights Watch said today.
The cases illustrate a worrying pattern of violent arrest, beatings, and other abuse that seems to be part of an increase in violent treatment in custody. They should be fully investigated. In four of the cases, the authorities have publicly refuted or countered allegations of abuse rather than making a commitment to investigate them. In recent days, media outlets released video footage and reports that appear to show three more cases in other Turkish cities. Because of the time frame, Human Rights Watch has not been able to investigate them.
“The immediate knee-jerk denial of police wrongdoing when faced with reports of police violence, torture, and ill-treatment – specifically in recent incidents in Diyarbakır – is sadly familiar, but not acceptable,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish authorities should immediately investigate these credible allegations of serious abuse and hold those responsible accountable.”
In two incidents, police officers set police dogs on people in their homes, leaving them with bite marks on their limbs. In two others, involving the detention of suspects in the fatal shooting of police officers, images of the detainees with signs of having been beaten and otherwise abused were posted on private social media accounts. In all cases, the authorities have claimed – without evidence – that those alleging police ill-treatment violently resisted arrest and the police.
Human Rights Watch reviewed photos, videos, and legal and medical documents in the incidents examined, and interviewed lawyers, families, and witnesses and, where possible, the victims.
In the most recent episode that Human Rights Watch documents, on July 18, 2020, the police detained three suspects, two of them children, in İstanbul, in connection with the fatal shooting of one police officer and injury of another. One of them, a 17-year-old identified by his initials because he is a child, told lawyers that police beat him with a cable and fists, kicked him in the face several times, and “bounced his head against the walls like a ball.”
Human Rights Watch viewed photographs of the detainees posted online by anonymous accounts in which bruising consistent with his allegations was clearly visible. The police account of the arrest claims that the police officers used proportionate force to restrain him when he attempted to injure himself.
Masked police raided Sevil Çetin’s house in Diyarbakır city, in the country’s southeast, on June 26. Çetin, an official for the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and former elected mayor, told her lawyers that the police broke down her door and let two dogs attack and bite her. She said: “[Officers] grabbed my hair and pushed me on the ground. They were kicking me and hitting me with the back of their guns, spitting on my half-naked body. They said, ‘If you had lived on the fifth floor, you would have jumped off and we wouldn’t have had to deal with you.’” Human Rights Watch has seen photographs of Çetin’s injuries.
Masked counterterrorism officers raided the Diyarbakır home of Şeyhmus and Menice Yılmaz and their three children on May 31. Şeyhmus Yılmaz said that the police held him on the ground as dogs bit his arms and scratched his body: “I kept telling them to check my ID so that they would understand I was not the person they were looking for. But they kept saying ‘Hit him, kill him!’” Human Rights Watch has seen photographs of Yılmaz’s injuries.
Lawyers for Muhammed Emir Cura, a suspect in the killing of a police officer in Diyarbakır, said that Cura told them that at the police station officers stripped him, beat him with batons and fists, and choked him until he fainted. Photos posted on social media by unknown people show Cura lying naked on the floor. A video shot on a mobile phone and showing two men from the waist down standing in a room records the sound of a person off camera whose voice Cura and his lawyers have identified as Cura’s groaning and crying out apparently while being abused.
Hacı Eray Tosun and Koray Tosun, brothers who run a café in Diyarbakır, allege that on June 13 police detained and beat them and two other men working with them after a dispute over police attempts to fine customers at the café for not wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. A photo of Eray Tosun supports his allegation that police knocked out three of his front teeth.
Human Rights Watch also documented a case in which community night watchmen ill-treated Cihat Duman and two other men in İstanbul. Duman, an İstanbul lawyer, said that on July 5, community night watchmen beat and handcuffed him, sprayed teargas into his face, and took him to the police station after he attempted to intervene to stop them beating two men in central İstanbul.
There has been a marked resurgence of police torture and ill-treatment in custody over the past five years and in particular since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Lack of condemnation from higher officials and a readiness to cover up allegations rather than investigate them has resulted in widespread impunity for security forces. There has been no justice for victims in cases of torture and other abuse documented by Human Rights Watch in recent years, and Turkey has a long and poor history of tolerating torture and invoking superficial denials and unconvincing explanations of how detainees have been seriously injured or died in custody.
Opposition members of parliament have frequently submitted written parliamentary questions regarding torture or ill-treatment. The Interior and Justice Ministries have not responded to most questions, although under parliamentary rules they are obligated to do so within 15 days. In one answer to a question about the torture of 55 men and women in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa in May 2019, the Interior Ministry simply dismissed the allegations as “baseless statements and smear campaigns against the security forces.” The complaints have not been investigated.
“Widespread impunity for abuses by security officers sends a message that they are above the law and encourages them to abuse detainees,” Porteous said. “Turkey’s president and interior minister need to state publicly in unconditional terms that Turkey will abide by the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment and bring those responsible for abuse to justice.”
For further details about the six cases, please see below.
Human Rights Watch investigated 6 cases involving 14 people, through interviews with lawyers, families of victims, and, where possible, victims themselves, and a review of medical and legal documentation and photographic evidence.
Sevil Çetin is a former elected mayor of Edremit, Van province, who was removed from office in 2016 in a government purge of elected representatives from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP). Since then Çetin has worked for the Peoples’ Democratic Party, overseeing the party’s municipal policies.
She alleges that in the afternoon of June 26, masked police broke down the door of her apartment and set two dogs on her that bit and scratched her, leaving marks on her thighs. Police blindfolded her, Çetin says, held a gun to her head, and stood on her back as she lay handcuffed and half-naked because of her torn clothes. They photographed her on the ground, spat on her, punched her, poured water on her and verbally abused her, then took her to the police station.
Photographs of Çetin at the police station taken by a lawyer show bite marks and bruises on both thighs, a black eye, and a split lip. Diyarbakır Governorship released a statement regarding Çetin’s torture allegations saying that the police dogs grabbed Çetin by her right foot because she was trying to jump off the balcony to escape and the police used appropriate force to protect themselves and Çetin. Çetin filed a criminal complaint against all the officials involved.
The police verbally informed one of Çetin’s lawyers that she would face an investigation for taking pictures of Çetin’s bruises. Police held Çetin for 11 days – with a court order extending custody twice. On July 7, the Mardin Criminal Peace Court sent her for pretrial detention on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization.”
Halit Eray Tosun and Koray Tosun
Halit Eray Tosun and Koray Tosun allege that on June 13, four police officers walked into the café the brothers ran and said they were going to fine everyone there for violating measures to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tosuns contend that one of the officers slapped Koray after he insisted they should not fine everyone. When he tried to run away, he said, five police officers teargassed him in the face and beat him. Halit Eray, who was trying to help his brother, fainted from the teargas and was handcuffed. Police detained the Tosun brothers and two of their employees.
Halit Eray said in his statement that the police continued to beat him on the way to the station, shoving in the testicles with a baton. At the police station, police officers punched him in the face and stomach, broke three of his teeth, and hit him on the head with a walkie talkie. Later, the police made both brothers stand against a wall and beat them again. They rejected the brothers’ request for an ambulance. They eventually took the brothers to a state hospital, where the doctor treated the cut on Halit Eray’s head in the presence of police officers, but the doctor refused to let him have an X-ray. In his complaint, Halit Eray said a police officer took his shirt, covered in blood, and reported back to his superiors: “I dealt with the shirt,” possibly implying that the evidence would be destroyed.
The brothers were held overnight and were not given food or water until their lawyer arrived. The Diyarbakır Governors’ office posted a statement from the Security Directorate on the website alleging that the Tosuns and their employees had prevented police from performing their duties and had beaten and injured the police officers. The Security Directorate announced that a criminal investigation into the incident had been initiated by the prosecutor’s office. The brothers filed a complaint against the police for severe ill-treatment.
Koray Tosun said that after this incident and their complaint against the police, the authorities have increased inspections of his family businesses and that police have stopped and searched his car and conducted background searches on him at least twice. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the arbitrary searches and inspections are reprisals against the Tosun brothers for their complaint.
Muhammed Emir Cura
Police detained Muhammed Emir Cura on May 31 in Diyarbakır on suspicion of shooting dead a police officer in civilian clothing one day earlier, a charge he denies. The media and authorities initially referred to the killing as a terrorist attack. Cura filed a complaint through his lawyers alleging that at the police station police stripped him, beat him with batons and fists, threatened him with rape with a baton, and choked him until he lost consciousness. A photograph of him lying handcuffed face down and stripped naked on the floor of the police station with a baton next to him was posted on social media, along with a video of a man heard groaning and shouting off camera as though being subjected to abuse. Cura and his lawyers have identified the voice on the video as Cura’s.
Police restricted lawyers’ access to Cura for eight hours. The police told Cura’s lawyers they had a written and signed statement from Cura saying he did not request a lawyer. Cura’s father said that his son had told him that police had put ice on his bruises before allowing him to speak to his lawyers.
The Diyarbakır Governor’s office website posted a statement by the Security Directorate on June 1 alleging that police officers had handcuffed Cura and stripped him because he had hidden a razor blade in his mouth and underwear. The statement also announced that there would be an investigation into the leak of the photo of him in detention but did not mention any investigation into the torture allegations. The same message was repeated in a written statement the same day by Ismail Çataklı, deputy interior minister and spokesperson for the ministry, saying that: “Zero tolerance for torture is our basic principle. It is also our responsibility to fight against terrorism, crime, and criminals, as well as combating every provocative action and informing the public correctly.”
Lawyers said the police did not provide them with any evidence that Cura had razor blades on his person when he was detained. Lawyers who visited Cura in Diyarbakır T Type Prison said that he is in solitary confinement and told them that prison guards frequently slapped and insulted him.
Human Rights Watch listened to a recording of a phone call between Cura and his family in which Cura seemed to be extremely distressed and said: “They tortured me. I can’t sleep because of what they did to me. They broke me.”
On June 2, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a member of parliament with the Peoples’ Democratic Party, submitted a parliamentary question, asking the Interior Ministry about the leaked video and torture allegations but has received no answer.
Şeyhmus and Menice Yılmaz
On May 31 at midnight, during the search for Muhammed Emir Cura, police raided a house owned by Cura’s grandmother but occupied by tenants, Şeyhmus and Menice Yılmaz, and their three children. Şeyhmus Yılmaz said that masked police officers broke down the door and let two dogs in the house, which bit him and attacked and scratched his wife. When she took their three children and hid from the dogs in another room, he alleged, police held him on the ground and started beating him saying: “This is him, hit him, hold him, kill him!”
He said they had beaten him for about five minutes before realizing that he was not Cura, leaving him with bite marks on his shoulder and waist, and scratches on his neck and belly. The family obtained a medical report listing their injuries and filed a criminal complaint against the officers. The children are traumatized, their father said.
The Diyarbakır Governorship released a statement on June 3 saying that Şeyhmus Yılmaz had resisted and kicked the police dog, but the police officers “quickly took control of the dog.”
Cihat Duman, an İstanbul lawyer, spoke with Human Rights Watch on July 7 about being ill-treated by community night watchmen and shared legal and medical documents of the incident:
On July 5, at about 2:30 a.m., I saw around 10 or 15 night watchmen teargas 2 men in the face and throw 1 of them who was trying to help his friend on the ground twice in a small street in İstanbul. I told the watchmen: “What you are doing is a crime, it’s ill-treatment. I am a lawyer and I know how these cases result.” As soon as I said this, they threw me on the ground with the other two and handcuffed me. While doing that, they said “We’ll show you how to be a lawyer. We’ll show you what it means to oppose a watchman.”
They made [the 3 of] us walk around 400 meters handcuffed while pulling our wrists causing bruises. While walking, they bent us forward and made us walk with our heads down to our knees even though we did not resist. I asked them what my crime was, and they said: “You insulted the President and Süleyman Soylu, the Minister of Interior.” I did not insult those officials or say anything about them.
The watchmen and later the police held us at their station for about seven hours. I took a medical report listing my injuries inflicted by the watchmen: bruises on my wrists, armpits, arms, and back. I filed a criminal complaint against the watchmen in question on July 6.
Police detained Serdar B., 19, and juveniles K.A. and O.I., both 17, whose full names are withheld since they are children, on July 18 in Bağcılar district of İstanbul on suspicion of shooting and killing a police officer and wounding another. Lawyers who met with K.A. and O.I. say that they alleged that the police had started beating them in the police car before taking them to Bağcılar police station then to the Children’s Branch. Serdar B. was taken to Gayrettepe Homicide Bureau.
K.A. told his lawyer that he was taken to a room in Bağcılar police station where the police “kicked and punched him in the face several times and bounced his head against the walls like a ball.” Lawyers who saw K.A. and O.I. undressed said K.A. had a split eyebrow, bruises on his head, and long red stripes on his back, consistent with beating with a cable. Lawyers said O.I. had severe swelling on his forehead, bruises on his shoulders, chest, and back.
Human Rights Watch has seen photographs of all three, allegedly taken by police officers and posted on Twitter by anonymous accounts. Lawyers said the detainees’ conditions and bruises were much worse than the leaked photographs. K.A. told his lawyer that police had also verbally abused and threatened him. The lawyer said the police did not give him a copy of his arrest record that set out the circumstances of his arrest but allowed him to note the wording.
K.A. said that in the record police explain the bruises on one of the detainees as follows: “After he was placed in a police car, he showed resistance and officers used gradual force and disabled [the detainee] by using handcuffs; he continued to resist at the Bağcılar Police Station, hit his body and head against the walls and ground and for this reason was disabled by force.” Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the bruises on the detainees are not consistent with self-harm as the police alleged. They said that medical reports list all the injuries of the detainees and a criminal complaint would be filed shortly. On July 20, all suspects were taken before an İstanbul court, which placed them in pretrial detention.
Failure to Investigate Earlier Incidents
Turkey holds the dubious record of being the Council of Europe member state with the highest number of findings of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights against it, hundreds of which involve violations of the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, and failure to investigate those violations.
Turkish authorities have also failed to conduct effective investigations into cases documented by Human Rights Watch in a report published in 2017. There was an investigation in one case involving seven police officers for the torture in June 2017 of four men in police custody in Gevaş, Van province, that resulted in the prosecution of just one officer. He was initially acquitted, and later retried and in June 2020 convicted of “intentional injury through excessive use of force” and given a prison sentence of 150 days, converted to a fine of 3,000 liras (US$438) and suspended. After the suspension of the fine, the victims’ lawyers appealed against the verdict. Photos of the four victims during their torture in police custody had at the time of the incident been posted on social media.
In May 2019, Şanlıurfa Bar Association documented an incident in which police detained 55 men and women in Halfeti district of Şanlıurfa and tortured and ill-treated them through sexual abuse, electric shocks, and beating. The investigation into the police officers is ongoing and there has to date been no outcome or indication the police might face prosecution.
On December 25, 2019, police detained a man, B.Y. (name withheld at the request of his lawyer), in Diyarbakır on suspicion of drug dealing. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that witnesses had reported seeing police officers beating their client as soon as he was detained. B.Y., who has concerns for his privacy and security, has filed a complaint alleging that he was beaten in the police car and that at the police station police barred lawyers from seeing him. The lawyers who initially filed the criminal complaint have not been informed of the results of any investigation into the police for the alleged abuse.