by Abdullah Bozkurt
A damning report by the United Nations on allegations of torture and ill treatment in Turkey’s prisons and detention centers under an extended state of emergency exposes attempts by the autocratic regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to cover up the evidence.
The report by Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, on his mission to Turkey that was published by the UN Human Rights Council on Dec. 18, 2017 reveals interesting facts on large-scale rights violations. To begin with, Melzer’s visit, which took place between Nov. 27 and Dec. 2, 2016, came after the Turkish government abruptly cancelled the visit of his predecessor, Juan E. Méndez, who was scheduled to visit Turkey from Oct. 10-14, 2016. Méndez lambasted the government for the last-minute cancellation and made clear that even in a state of emergency, safeguards against torture and ill treatment and other fundamental human rights must remain in place.
On July 19, 2016, four days after a failed coup bid in Turkey, Méndez was among 10 top UN experts who set off alarm bells over the Erdoğan government’s mass arrests of thousands of judges and prosecutors including two members of the Constitutional Court with no evidence of any involvement in the attempt. “We are particularly alarmed at the sheer number of judges and prosecutors who have reportedly been suspended and arrested” the experts warned, stressing that “according to international law, judges can be suspended or removed only on serious grounds of misconduct or incompetence after fair proceedings,” they said, adding: “We call on the authorities to release and reinstate these judges and prosecutors until credible allegations of wrong doing are properly investigated and evidenced. Any sanctions taken must be in line with international standards on judicial independence.”
Following the cancellation of Méndez’s visit to Turkey, Melzer managed to complete the fact-finding trip a month later but under heavy limitations. The Erdoğan government restricted his visit to only five working days as opposed to 10 to 14 on average by most UN member-states, preventing him from doing a comprehensive analysis of the situation on the ground. The UN envoy was not able to thoroughly examine many issues that fall under his mandate because of the time restriction.
Moreover, the UN special rapporteur highlighted the apparent disconnect between the declared government policy of zero tolerance for torture and its implementation in practice. He said formal investigations and prosecutions of torture and ill-treatment allegations were extremely rare despite widespread and persistent allegations in the aftermath of the coup attempt. As a result, he concluded that a strong perception of de facto impunity for acts of torture and other forms of ill treatment had been created.
The UN envoy lays bare the terrible conditions in the aftermath of the failed coup and cites reports of “severe beatings, punches and kicking, blows with objects, falaqa, threats and verbal abuse, being forced to strip naked, rape with objects and other sexual violence or threats thereof, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and extended blindfolding and/or handcuffing for several days.” He made note of allegations of extremely overcrowded detention centers where suspects did not have adequate access to food, water or medical treatment and were kept incommunicado, without access to lawyers or relatives and without being formally charged for extended periods of time lasting up to 30 days.
Melzer’s report also gives us clues on why the Erdoğan government cancelled his predecessor’s visit. When the forensic expert in his delegation examined victims of torture, signs of ill treatment were visible only in a limited number of cases, which led the UN special rapporteur to conclude that this was because of the time that had elapsed between the alleged abuse and the visit of the UN team. They were unequivocally clear that “many detainees showed signs of anguish, distress and psychological trauma consistent with their allegations, and, in some cases, mental disturbances, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder requiring psychological or psychiatric support.”
The time constraint also prevented the UN team from investigating prolonged solitary confinement, which has been a deliberate and systematic part of the government persecution of critics and opponents in Turkey’s prisons. Leading critical journalists, judges and prosecutors who had investigated major corruption schemes involving Erdoğan’s family or exposed the Turkish government’s links to armed jihadist groups in Syria have been particularly singled out for such inhumane treatment, causing irreparable damage to the physical and psychological well-being of the detainees. UN Special Rapporteur Melzer said he was aware of allegations that a large number of high-ranking military officers, Supreme Court of Appeals judges, prosecutors and others had been subjected to such punishment but was unable to confirm due to the time constraints imposed on his visit. But he made a point that “prolonged (of more than 15 days) or indefinite solitary confinement contravenes the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” He also added that because of the prisoners’ inability to communicate with the outside world, solitary confinement also gives rise to situations conducive to other acts of torture or ill treatment.
The conditions in detention centers are far worse than prisons, according to the report, holding large numbers of people for extended periods in small cells that have no ventilation, no bathroom facilities, no access to fresh air and no heating. Melzer wrote that heaters were installed in the cells shortly before his visit, new mattresses and covers were provided and the facilities were freshly painted, apparently to give a good impression to the UN team. Other problems such as restricted access to visits and phone calls with family members and lawyers were also highlighted.
The UN found a near-complete absence of complaints being submitted, transmitted or investigated by officials with regard to allegations of torture and ill treatment. Melzer attributed this to the fear of retaliation for victims and their family members as well as a deep distrust of the independence of the prosecution and the judiciary. He further noted that many of those who had filed formal complaints reported that no follow-up had been undertaken by the prosecutor or the judiciary. For example, the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office told UN experts that from Jan. 1, 2016 to Dec. 1, 2016, only 24 law enforcement officers had come under suspicion of having committed torture, without a single one of those cases leading to an indictment. The Ministry of the Interior told Melzer that only five “serious allegations” had been received regarding torture and ill treatment and that investigations had been conducted and disciplinary measures taken.
The UN also dealt with the lingering impunity for torture cases in Turkey by criticizing Article 9 of decree-law No. 667, which stated that “legal, administrative, financial and criminal liabilities shall not arise in respect of persons who have adopted decisions and fulfill their duties within the scope of this Decree Law.” In fact, the decision by the prosecutor’s office in Trabzon on Jan. 5, 2017 stated that there were no grounds to investigate and prosecute a torture complaint resulting from measures taken under state of emergency decrees due to the immunity effectively given to state officials under those decrees. Melzer said this decision is consistent with what he observed on the ground, which was perceived as “de facto impunity for torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of State officials.”
The Erdoğan government also made it extremely difficult to document and conduct professional forensic examinations of allegations of torture and ill treatment as well as deaths in custody. Forensic experts and medical doctors have been under pressure from authorities to not properly document abuse. In many cases forensic examinations have either not been conducted in line with international standards or have not been conducted at all. Given the fact that many professional forensic experts including the director of the Council of Forensic Medicine were arrested, many fear attracting the wrath of the government.
The UN special rapporteur says he is very concerned about the alleged interference of the authorities with the independence of the forensic services and with the proper implementation of their mandate, which makes proper documentation and effective investigation of torture and ill treatment difficult, if not impossible, and further contributes to impunity for abuse. The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), an advocacy group based in Sweden, documented 102 cases of suspicious deaths and suicides in detentions, prisons and other places as a result of torture, ill treatment and other forms of abuse, threats and intimidation by the government.
The release of this UN report is quite important given the fact that the Turkish government blocked the publication of another critical report that was prepared by the Council of Europe (CoE) Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), which paid a visit to Turkey in August and September 2016. It complements similar but more critical reports issued by human rights organizations such as SCF, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW). The Erdoğan government is of course not happy with Melzer’s report and submitted ridiculous responses to it that reveal a deep disconnect from reality and the terrible mindset of the current government in Turkey. Ankara is sticking to the bogeyman tactic in justifying torture and continues to disseminate a hoax terror group called FETÖ in a bid to convince the world of the nation’s unprecedented witch-hunt targeting opponents of the Erdoğan regime.