Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Turkish authorities to investigate allegations of abusive behavior by the İstanbul police towards peaceful protestors who wanted to commemorate 33 victims of an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) bombing in southeastern Turkey in 2015.
July 20 marked the eighth anniversary of the killing of 33 people in a suicide bombing by an ISIL militant in Suruç, a town in southeastern Şanlıurfa province.
Activists gathered in different parts of the country to commemorate the victims, most of whom were members of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP) youth wing and the Socialist Youth Associations Federation (SGDF).
Dozens of protestors including university students were detained by the police ahead of the commemoration ceremony in İstanbul’s Kadıköy district as they were handing out fliers.
HRW said the police arbitrarily arrested and abused a group of about 45 demonstrators who were distributing fliers in advance of the protest, then assaulted and detained protesters on the day of the demonstration, detaining another 154 people.
The rights organization said the police “kettled” the protesters, herding them into an enclosed space and using excessive force to prevent them from dispersing on both days while police officers later restricted lawyers’ access to their clients for hours at the police station, verbally and physically abusing the lawyers.
“Turkey’s authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate the Istanbul police’s allegedly abusive and unlawful conduct toward activists and lawyers involved in the Suruç bombing commemoration,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Demonstrators have a right to protest peacefully without being attacked by the police, and those detained have a right to promptly see their lawyers without mistreatment.”
HRW interviewed three demonstrators released from police custody and eight lawyers – including from the Istanbul Bar Association’s human rights and lawyers’ rights centers, and examined medical reports and video footage of the episode.
Upon the request of the Istanbul Anatolian Courthouse Terrorism and Organized Crime Prosecution Bureau, the Istanbul Anatolian 2nd Criminal Peace Court ruled that six of those arrested should be sent for pretrial detention on suspicion of violating the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations (Law No. 2911) and resisting arrest, and that three others should be released under judicial control measures and with travel bans. The rest were released.
“The court decision to hold people for pretrial detention for distributing leaflets, which Human Rights Watch examined, provides only abstract reasons and no concrete evidence to justify pretrial detention as a necessary and proportionate measure.”
Nearly all of the detained activists who testified at the court session said that the police had used unnecessary or excessive violence while they were distributing leaflets and then surrounded them. The police, allegedly without ordering or permitting the demonstrators to disperse, then arrested them.
“While Turkey’s restrictive Law on Meetings and Demonstrations is often used against people who exercise their right to peaceful protest, in general the police intervene to disperse protests without warning and detain protesters,” HRW said.
Sait Çetin, who was detained on July 17 and released the next day, said the police hit him, bursting his eardrum. He showed Human Rights Watch his medical report, which confirmed the injury. He said the police squeezed about 45 people into a very tight police circle and insulted the activists. He said that while in custody, police officers had kicked him and refused to let him see his lawyer for 11 hours.
Nevruz Tuğçe Çelik, who was detained on July 20 and released the next day, told HRW that police had intervened violently against demonstrators, surrounded them and held them in a circle, even though they had been dispersing. Çelik said police officers beat her and handcuffed her behind her back and that a male police officer kicked her when she was getting on the detainee bus. Her statement says the police without authorization opened her bag and confiscated her mobile phone and in the process broke her watch.
Lawyers interviewed confirmed their mistreatment, too. Bilge Sayıcı said the lawyers had not been allowed to use restrooms at the police station and that the police beat the lawyers and pulled their hair while ejecting them from the police station. Human Rights Watch has seen footage showing police pushing, hitting and expelling lawyers through a revolving door at the police station.
Another lawyer interviewed, who preferred not to be named, said one male and two female police officers had dragged her out by her hair. The lawyer provided Human Rights Watch with her medical report, which shows signs of violence, and said she would file a formal complaint.
Lawyers from the Istanbul Bar Association’s human rights and lawyers’ rights centers were at the police station to observe the detainees’ treatment and to report on any police obstruction of lawyers to represent their clients. The association issued a media statement confirming the mistreatment of the lawyers and filed a criminal complaint against police officers for attacking them.
In a July 21 statement, the Union of Turkish Bar Associations expressed concern about the police behavior and pointed out that attacks against lawyers violate their rights and freedoms. Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, “[g]overnments shall ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; and are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely.”
“The Istanbul police seem to have ignored all rules and regulations governing arrest and detention, endangering the people in custody as well as their lawyers,” Williamson said. “The Turkish authorities need to investigate this incident and take appropriate measures against those responsible for abuse.”