A rights group on International Women’s Day called for an investigation into rights violations suffered by women due to a crackdown by the Turkish government after a failed coup in 2016, in a complaint submitted to a monitor mandated by the Council of Europe (CoE).
ASSEDEL (L’Association européenne pour la défense des droits et des libertés), a Strasbourg-based non-profit, detailed instances of flagrant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) committed by Turkish authorities against women in the last five years in its submission to the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), a body mandated by the CoE to monitor the implementation of the Istanbul Convention.
Turkey was the first country to ratify the treaty; however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reportedly been considering withdrawing from the convention.
Pointing to the scale of the government crackdown following an attempted coup in July 2016, ASSEDEL called on GREVIO to investigate the plight of women imprisoned on politically motivated charges as well as women victimized due to their association with targeted groups.
Ankara accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group designated by the government as a terrorist organization, of orchestrating the 2016 failed coup and has since embarked on an unprecedented crackdown which, according to official figures, has seen the detention of 301,932 and imprisonment of 96,000. There are currently 25,467 people in Turkey’s prisons who were jailed on alleged links to the Gülen movement, 11,000 of whom are women, according to a recent report by an opposition lawmaker.
Thousands of women including pregnant women and women who had just given birth were sent to jail on trumped-up terrorism charges as part of the ongoing crackdown.
Citing UN reports, ASSEDEL’s letter pointed the plight of women who have been “sexually assaulted during the arrest or the detention, or have been detained with or without their children whilst visiting their spouses, or have been arrested just before or after giving birth.”
The rights association said the fact that 780 children are accompanying their mothers in prison is “a phenomenon creating great concern.”
“There is no doubt that pregnant women, who are arbitrarily forced to lie on the ground for days in cells of full capacity are physically and psychologically targeted with their babies,” the complaint read.
The letter further said that women are “being deprived of the right to breastfeeding within an appropriate manner, being used as a threat to their spouses or relatives who are simultaneously detained or their children being used as a threat for them, being accused of giving birth on order or using their children as an instrument to be able to get released, experiencing resistance with their children under detention and arrest, before and afterward.”
Özlem Zengin, a senior official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has come under fire due to remarks claiming that women who were jailed as part of the government-led crackdown on the Gülen movement deliberately conceive in conjugal rooms to create the perception that women in Turkey are jailed with their babies.
Zengin had previously attracted widespread criticism when she denied the practice of strip-searches in Turkey’s detention centers and prisons, accusing women of being dishonorable for failing to immediately report alleged strip-searches.
Strip-search used as ‘psychological torture’
Dozens of women, including prominent writers and a politician, revealed in December 2020 that police had strip-searched them while in custody after Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu brought several reports to public attention in late 2020.
Some women related their experiences long after the incidents during a Turkish wave of revelations similar to the international #MeToo movement in which women described past sexual harassment.
Stating that the strip-searches have become widespread in Turkey despite the fact that it should be an exceptional measure to be used in exceptional circumstances, ASSEDEL said that “the state of powerlessness inflicted upon the women detained or arrested, the intentional and purposeful character of the strip search practice, the fact that this practice has been carried out by authorities acting on behalf of the State, the infliction of mental pain or suffering based on the conviction of individuals, on the cultural and personal values and the humiliating and intimidating aspect of strip search practice and finally systematic and deliberate violation of the victims’ privacy, dignity, and sexual integrity situate directly this notion under the scope of the psychological torture and thus constitutes a violation of the Article 5 of the Convention (ECHR).”
Allegations of rape and harassment
“They took me to the police station, terrorism unit …They called the prosecutor and told him on the phone, ‘we have got a wife of a terrorist.’ … Then the police officer started threatening to take off my clothes and that they would show me to the detained men soldiers. He put his hands under my t-shirt and started to take it off. … I was numb, silent,” the ASSEDEL letter quoted a woman detained over alleged Gülen ties as saying, citing an interview with a UN body.
Also citing the testimony of a crackdown victim who alleged that a female officer resorted to abortion after being raped by a police officer in detention, the letter emphasized that when coupled with the scale of arbitrary detentions, the examples showcase “the real extent of the torture and ill-treatment faced by women in Turkey at the hands of the law enforcement officials.”
“Based on the observations and evaluations carried out throughout the report, ASSEDEL calls for an inquiry to be conducted against Turkey under Article 68 of the (Istanbul) Convention, Paragraphs 13, 14,and 15,” ASSEDEL said, adding that the association hoped their submission would “help put an end to or at least help to mitigate and prevent
potential human rights violation cases against women from happening in the future.”
According to the World Report 2021 prepared by Human Rights Watch, the Gülen movement is the largest group targeted by the Turkish government.
The war against the movement culminated in the aftermath of the failed coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016 because President Erdoğan and his AKP government accused the movement of masterminding the abortive putsch and initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.