The excessive use of force by police against unarmed civilians in some recent incidents -- some of which ended up in serious injury and even death -- has led to much indignation in Turkey.
Human rights groups in Turkey have said the recent incidents show that Turkey still has problems with human rights and that the government’s previous launch of a zero-tolerance policy on torture and abuse fell short of expectations. “Turkey is being transformed into a police state. The police have become an organization that uses its force excessively. The government covered significant distance in its fight against torture and abuse in its first years in office, but the gains are being lost now,” complained Üstün Bol, secretary-general of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER).
The reaction against growing police brutality has gotten harsher after the killing of a young man by a police officer during a fight in the western province of İzmir last week. The fight erupted in the wake of a traffic accident in which a vehicle driven by a young man, Erhan Barlak, collided with a police car. A police officer shot at the driver several times during the fight; the man later died in the hospital.
In a separate incident in eastern Ağrı province also last week, a police officer shot a man who was smuggling cigarettes in the head. The man was seriously injured and lost an eye. In addition, a video clip posted in July showed a group of police officers relentlessly beating a man in front of his family in İstanbul’s Fatih district. The incident caused nationwide outrage. The man was reportedly driving a pregnant relative to the hospital. Reports said police officers attacked the man after he refused to let them cut in front of him as they switched lanes.
MAZLUM-DER’s Bol said incidents of police brutality are not peculiar to Turkey. “There are bad people and bad civil servants everywhere in the world. But the big question is if legal steps are taken against wrongdoers. In Turkey, such steps are taken in incidents that find a place in the media, but many other wrongdoers go unpunished,” he stated.
Turkey’s attempts to harmonize with the European Union’s Copenhagen criteria had produced a zero tolerance policy on torture and maltreatment of individuals. Human rights groups, however, say the widespread use of torture continues in Turkey despite the government’s “zero tolerance” policy and sweeping changes made to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).
In Turkey, police officers complain about tough working conditions. They say they are forced to overwork with almost no days off for several consecutive weeks, which they say is a factor that leads them to “make mistakes” when working. However, Bol does not think tough working conditions can lead a police officer to kill an unarmed civilian on purpose. “Doctors also complain that they are forced to overwork under unfavorable conditions, but they don’t kill patients,” he said.
Öztürk Türkdoğan, chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD), is also of the opinion that the government’s zero tolerance policy against torture and abuse has ended in a fiasco. “Looking at data provided by civil society groups and the Ministry of Justice, there is an increase in incidents of police brutality in recent years. This suggests that the zero tolerance policy has been shelved. Members of security forces usually go unpunished for their wrong acts. It is like a part of the Turkish culture. This started in the 1980s [after the military coup]. Members of security forces think they will go unpunished whatever they do and the state will always protect them no matter what crime they commit,” he said, and added that the police would not use guns against civilians so easily if they were called to account for their wrongful acts.
Suggesting solutions to Turkey’s problem of increasing police brutality, Türkdoğan said heavy responsibility falls on the government. “The government should not make concessions in the fight against police brutality. Officers who are involved in mistreatment or torture should immediately be called to account and they should be suspended pending trial,” he stated.
Mehmet Tursun, father of Baran Tursun, who was shot dead by a police in 2007 during a chase, said more than 100 people have been shot and killed by police officers in the past five years. Tursun established a foundation in memory of his son shortly after the fatal incident, and named the foundation after his son, the Baran Tursun Foundation. The foundation works to bring incidents of police brutality to people’s attention and fights for broader human rights. According to Tursun, the Police Duties and Authorities Law (PSVK) grants “broad rights” to police in using guns against civilians. “Police officers believe they will receive only symbolic penalties even if they kill people when using their guns thanks to this law. Looking at penalties imposed on police officers, we see that they really are symbolic,” he complained. The police officer who killed Tursun’s son was sentenced to two years, one month in prison.
Head of İzmir Bar Association Sema Pekdaş said the law grants police officers a right to use guns in the event of danger or threat, but the law also specifies under which conditions officers are allowed to use their guns. “Police have to act within the scope of the law. … They may shoot into the air to frighten or disperse a violent group, but they should be reminded that the use of guns is a last option,” she stated.