[OPINION] Erdoğan gov’t turns to rape as a political weapon in Turkey

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PHOTO: Ye Jinghan (Unsplash)
Abdullah Bozkurt

Abdullah Bozkurt

As part of an escalating crackdown on the right to dissent, on criticism and on opposition voices in Turkey in recent years, the regime of autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to have resorted a new politically motivated weapon of rape and sexual harassment in detention centers and prisons.

The cases, most of them unfortunately unreported for fear of backlash either from authorities or relatives, I have received thus far suggest a growing pattern in which elements of the security forces have committed rape and sexual assaults or threaten such acts in a deliberate and systematic way. Police, intelligence officers, paramilitary units and members of the military have been provided carte blanche, and they act with impunity in the face of a total collapse of the rule of law in the country.

I felt sick to my stomach when I saw the evidence of torture that indicated the sexual abuse of a journalist colleague of mine in medical reports that are quite rare, given the fact that health care professionals are forced to ignore such indications and are dissuaded from entering such details into the record. In another case of a journalist colleague who has been in extended pre-trial detention on fabricated charges of terrorism, a police officer sexually abused her during custody and traumatized her. I received a credible reporting about a jailed woman who got pregnant after a rape. More and more tragic accounts detail the horrible specter of rape and sexual attack on political detainees with the tacit approval of Erdoğan’s Islamist regime.

I’m afraid these are just the tip of the iceberg, and we will certainly know more when the veil is lifted from the dark face of the Erdoğan regime in the future. These despicable crimes are not only taking place in detention centers and prisons but are also occurring in unofficial holding locations and secret detention centers that neither lawyers nor family members have any access to. Turkey’s notorious National Intelligence Organization (MIT) engages in the abduction of critics on the street, sometimes in broad daylight, dragging them to unknown locations for torture including rape or the threat of rape of the victim or his wife and/or daughter if the victim does not reveal what was expected of him.

Some victims are still in shock after the traumatic incidents, some lose their sanity after going through the terrible experience. Others are incensed or troubled by the tragic memory of the rape and are still confused about the violence they were subjected to. The climate of fear, cultural values, lack of judicial remedies and the absence of a critical and independent media have kept many victims from coming forward. The extensive damage inflicted upon women by the thugs of the Erdoğan regime requires not only international media attention for naming and shaming this thuggish government but also support for the victims who need all the help they can get from medical, psychological and legal professionals. Their rehabilitation will take years while they recover from the terrible ordeal they encountered at the hands of these oppressors.

It is not surprising to see a regime turning to rape as a political weapon after it already resorted to looting the assets of critics, at least $11 billion in assets in direct confiscations, the extrajudicial killings of some 100 people, the arbitrary detention of well over 100,000 people and the enforced disappearance of about a dozen people, all within two years. The rape allegations were found credible and, in some cases, documented by both the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International. Yet the Erdoğan government seems indifferent to criticism since it rounded up 121 women and locked them away on International Women’s Day back in March. It is estimated that some 17,000 women have been jailed in Turkey since 2016 on alleged charges of belonging to the Gülen movement, a worldwide network of civic groups that emerged as the main critic of the Erdoğan regime.

The chilling narrative we hear from associates and supporters of the Erdoğan government is almost on par with the ideology of jihadists and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, both of which used rape as a weapon of war according to the UN. Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten laid bare this strategy in a work titled “I Lost My Dignity: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Syrian Arab Republic.” An employee with the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, which is run by Erdoğan’s party, shared a message in April 2017 saying that the wives and daughters of naysayers in a constitutional referendum were “halal” for “yes” voters as “spoils of war.” In other words, they can be turned into sex slaves. The referendum, which was won by Erdoğan by a narrow margin, bestowed sweeping powers on the Turkish president and replaced a decades-old parliamentary system with an imperial presidency. Similar narratives can be found in dozens of anonymous social media accounts that are believed to be run by the Erdoğan government, which employs as many as 12,000 trolls to attack, smear and threaten opponents of the government.

Radical Turkish clerics who endorse Erdoğan help fuel the jihadist mindset in Turkey against the president’s critics and opponents, justifying torture and ill treatment of innocent people who are merely exercising their right to dissent. For example, a jihadist cleric named Nureddin (or Nurettin) Yıldız, a man who has openly endorsed jihadist wars from Syria to China and is seen as very close to Erdoğan’s family, advocated a view that members of the Gülen movement must be executed — hanged and their arms and legs cut off. In a rally held in front of Erdoğan’s house in Istanbul, Abdülmetin Balkanlıoğlu, another radical pro-Erdoğan cleric who has a sizable following in Turkey and Europe, publicly said that the assets seized from the Gülen movement were spoils of war for Muslims to enjoy. Balkanlıoğlu has links to jihadist groups in Syria and advocated the view that Muslims in Syria were battling against the US, Russia and China and urged them to martyr themselves as part of the jihad.

Many victims claimed that government decree-laws blocked the way to filing complaints against police officers and others who engaged in torture and abuse. This obviously opened the path to systematic torture including rape. The victims were denied the right to elaborate on instances of torture in their testimony when they appeared in trial proceedings after long pre-trial detentions. In many cases, they were also rejected by doctors who did not want to enter into the record the horrible accounts provided by victims during medical screening at hospitals.

No wonder the Erdoğan regime prevented the publication of a report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). The report was compiled by CPT investigators from on-site visits to prisons in Turkey and interviews with detainees in 2016, and the Turkish government has continued to block its publication since then. Turkey’s stated policy of zero tolerance to torture has no practical application in its detentions centers and prisons.

The Erdoğan government continues to violate articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant human rights agreements to which Turkey is party. The failure to conduct effective investigations and prosecutions of credible reports of torture, abuse and rape confirms the view that abusers are protected by the government and that impunity reigns in today’s Turkey. Decree-law No. 667, issued by the government on July 23, 2016, granted blanket immunity to law enforcement officers in order to prevent claims of torture, ill treatment or abuse. There are cases in which Turkish prosecutors refused to pursue such torture allegations by victims, citing this decree-law.

More pressure must be brought to bear to force the Erdoğan government to halt the use of rape as a political tool to persecute critics and to do away with torture and ill treatment in detention and prison. The perpetrators must be held to account and punished to the full extent of the law to send a clear message that rape cannot be used as a weapon to silence critical voices and to crack down on the right to dissent. Since the rule of law has collapsed in Turkey, leaving little or no hope for such crimes to be investigated and prosecuted by the national authorities, these allegations must be investigated and prosecuted at the international level or perhaps in another country where victims would have the right to bring legal action against the Erdoğan government and its thugs for rights violations.

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