Justice thwarted as torture continues behind closed doors
Representatives from various NGOs in Diyarbakır marched through the streets on International Human Rights Day, to draw attention to human rights violations. (PHOTO İHA, AHMET ÜN)
Last May 200 juvenile offenders were transferred from Adana’s Pozantı juvenile detention center to Ankara’s Sincan juvenile detention center due to rape allegations.
These minors this time were subjected to torture by security officers in special chambers called “soft rooms.” Four correctional officers faced trial. On Dec. 12, it was revealed that the Sincan Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office ruled a lack of grounds for legal action because most of the victims allegedly did not file a complaint against the officers and the prosecutor’s office did not find sufficient evidence to start legal proceedings.
Turkey observed yet another international Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 with similar hard-to-believe accounts delivered by victims and activists who closely follow the suffering of those in custody or serving time behind bars.
Activists agree that the penal institutions in Turkey are potentially the most risky environments for the perpetration of violations to human rights, yet also the most unprotected areas despite the risk of unprecedented violence.
With the current legislation concerning the country’s prisons and detention centers, it is almost impossible to punish abusers who inflict violence on anyone who has been jailed, who remains at the mercy of jail guards, the administration and police officers.
Human rights advocates emphasize the urgent need to open these facilities to the supervision of civil society organizations, but the light of hope is dim.
The current state of prisoners’ rights erodes the sense of justice in the country, according to Metin Bakkalcı, secretary-general of the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV), an organization collecting documentation and carrying out scientific research on human rights as well as providing assistance to the victims of torture.
Bakkalcı stated in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman that few of the tormentors of the jailed or detained face legal action. Quite the opposite, the victims are often accused of committing offenses against their torturers. “The victims face 80 times more court cases than the tormentors,” he explained.
“Transparency is a must in order to prevent torture [at penal institutions],” Bakkalcı highlighted, pointing out that independent commissions Turkish authorities vowed to set up to oversee conditions at prison and detention centers by Oct. 27 are still pending.
He underlined partial improvements that took place between 2000 and 2005, but since then the legal regulations have been changed in a way that fails to assure the protection of human rights in prisons and detention centers, said the rights activist. Bakkalcı said the discourse of authorities has only contributed to the lack of prospects for improvement.
“Changes to the laws in 2006 weakened the protection of rights of prisoners and those in custody and changes to law enforcement laws in 2007 encouraged arbitrary treatment by police,” Bakkalcı elaborated.
One positive example was seen last October when a court gave a life sentence to two prison guards and a warden in the case of Engin Çeber four years after his death as a result of torture in İstanbul’s Metris Prison. According to Bakkalcı, the development was a result of an enormous public reaction to Çeber’s death.
Zero tolerance for torture?
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government vowed to end torture with a policy that the party famously calls “zero tolerance for torture.” The party proudly lists the policy among the accomplishments it has achieved thus far. However, human rights advocates tell a different story.
Civil society organizations define isolation in prison as a means of torture and say the method has been used more often since 2000. Mehmet Güven, from the Association for the Solidarity of Families of Inmates (TAYAD), said isolation is a bigger punishment than physical torture and criticized the government for contributing to an increase in violence in jails rather than taking steps to eliminate the practice as it promised. “The policy of losing people and inflicting physical violence on inmates has changed form. Torture is rampant now more than in the past,” Güven suggested.
Turkey encountered the people who had gone missing in law enforcement institutions after the Sept. 12, 1980 coup d’état. Many more were added to the list of missing people in the 1990s, when the battle against terrorism was intensified. There are still hundreds whose whereabouts are unknown.
Bakkalcı recalled that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) penalized Turkey this year for the use of tear gas by police during a 2004 demonstration, citing the crowd-control tactic as torture -- a ruling which marks a first, according to the activist.
Kaya Kartal and Okan Kadir Bektaşoğlu, lawyers from the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), agreed that the government has failed to eliminate torture in penal institutions and elaborated on other human rights violations at the hands of law enforcement officers in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman.
Kartal noted that officers in most cases write reports after using inflicting violence in a way that exonerates themselves. Bektaşoğlu said police officers are eager to “find criminals,” whether they exist or not, because it reflects positively on their career.
“There is a scoring system in the police force. When they catch criminals, they earn points. If they get high points, they are appointed to anywhere they want,” Bektaşoğlu explained.
Overcrowded prisons are a human rights violation per se, according to the lawyers, who said inmates suffer from many problems, including being stuck into small rooms used over their capacity, which result in adaptations like sleeping in shifts. Sometimes, the consequences for overcrowding are deadly.
A fire which broke out after a fight among prisoners in a Şanlıurfa prison last June claimed the lives of 13 inmates. According to news reports, the prison had a capacity of 600 but was holding some 1,000 prisoners. The section where the fire broke out was designed to hold 12 inmates but was accommodating 18 at the time of the deadly incident.
Kartal said the current capacity of Turkish prisons is 121,000, while 128,000 people are kept in these facilities, 75 percent of whom are convicts. The lawyers said inmates with illnesses are not treated well. The patients are mostly made to wait, even in fatal conditions.