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July 30, 2012, Monday

Self-inflicted wounds

Stomach-churning accounts of ill treatment were a recurring theme during my early years as a foreign correspondent in Turkey in the late 1980s and 1990s, as report after report produced by international human rights groups documented widespread violations of human rights.

In the right circumstances, exposing past abuse and airing grievances could be a therapeutic exercise, not just for the victims but also for a nation that still needs to come to terms with some unpalatable realities of the recent past.

Unfortunately, the accounts of violent abuse committed in the not-too-distant past that have surfaced in the Turkish media in recent days have come to light because one of the police officers identified by several former detainees as one of their abusers, Sedat Selim Ay, has just been appointed head of the anti-terrorism department of the İstanbul police. Several recent cases have also shown that police brutality is not a thing of the past, even if ill treatment is no longer systematic.

Not surprisingly, Ay’s nomination is causing outrage in numerous quarters, especially since the man in question was among a group of police officers who had been charged for human rights violations, and Turkey was twice condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to pursue these cases to the end.

The government claims to have rejected military tutelage, but this nomination shows once more that it has opted for continuity where radical change was needed. The police department, defiant in the face of growing anger, has pointed out that since the officer was never jailed for ill treatment, these charges do not constitute an obstacle to his promotion. Since numerous international institutions, including the European Union, have taken Turkey to task over the years for too rarely punishing officials guilty of human rights violations, the explanation rings hollow.

Given Turkey’s extremely loose interpretation of what constitutes “terrorism,” the decision to promote the controversial police officer to such a sensitive position is seen as particularly inflammatory and likely to cause more tension. Several members of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) have, to their credit, expressed their unease with this recent appointment.

The same unfortunate continuity can be seen in the judiciary. On Aug. 1, the 12th High Criminal Court in Çağlayan will hold yet another hearing in the unending case of sociologist Pınar Selek, charged for allegedly placing a bomb in the Spice Bazaar 14 years ago. In spite of several expert reports attributing the explosion to a gas leak and three court rulings acquitting Selek, the case has turned into a judicial soap opera. No lawyer would venture a guess as to how much longer the case is likely to go on, or what might happen in court on Wednesday. Aside from the physical torture Selek suffered after her arrest, the judicial vendetta against her amounts to a Kafkaesque form of judicial abuse.

She is not alone: Too many citizens of this country -- students, academics, activists -- have seen their lives blighted by unfair and unnecessary prosecution. Fond of conspiracy theories and often seeing foreign plots behind the challenges that face their country, the Turkish authorities fail to see the damage they are inflicting on their own country. In many nations, a civil society activist like Selek, who is an active feminist and also worked with people excluded from society, such as impoverished Kurds, Roma and street children, would be feted for their contribution to the community. Here, they are seen as a threat. In fact, the legal vendetta against her has forced Selek to settle abroad. Sometimes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this country eats its young.

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