Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Police Violence in the Spotlight

PHOTO of police beating a group of women in Van this March.

Police violence has been one of the many human rights-related epidemics to plague Turkey over the years, and a recent report released Dec. 5 focuses attention on the problem. Turkish police -- civilian and military -- have long been accused of excessive use of force, torture, illegal detention, and various other human rights violations and improprieties, all of which are more frequently than not treated with impunity. From the HRW release:
The 80-page report, "Closing Ranks against Accountability - Barriers to Tackling Police Violence in Turkey," documents 28 cases of police abuse against members of the public since the start of 2007, and examines official investigations of police conduct in those instances. The cases include fatal and non-fatal shootings by the police; ill-treatment and excessive use of force by police against demonstrators; and ill-treatment during or following identity checks. Those who file complaints against the police often find themselves put on trial for having "forcibly resisted" the police.

"Turkey needs to tackle its violent and trigger-happy policing culture," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "That can only happen if the criminal justice system holds the police to account for these serious crimes."

Police violence in Turkey has been exacerbated by changes to the law on police powers made in June 2007, which give police excessively broad discretion to use lethal force and encourage arbitrary stops and searches by police. Since the research for this report was finished in June 2008 there has been a spate of shootings by police officers in cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, Adana, Bursa, and Antalya. Seven of them were fatal.

The problem is compounded by the failure to adequately investigate abuses when complaints are made. The report documents a pattern of police interference with investigations, including attempts to conceal, contaminate, or plant evidence. Investigations by prosecutors last many months and even years, often with no result. Where a prosecution is commenced, trials also last for years and the rate of conviction is extremely low. Convictions rarely lead to prison sentences.

"Victims of police violence we interviewed frequently told us that the police feel untouchable," Roth said. "That will only change if police officers who break the law are punished."

PHOTO of Cüneyt Ertuş

I have tried to follow incidents of police violence since starting this blog, but reports are numerous and media coverage of specific cases is sparse in detail, sporadic, and regularly inconsistent. The impunity of police officers charged with rights violations is routinely decried by human rights groups inside and outside of Turkey. As HRW writes in its report, incidents of police violence have been on the rise despite government pledges to curb abuse. However, pledges are not always followed up with substantive action. Take torture: The AKP-led government has announced a zero-tolerance policy on torture, but police continue to torture despite official government policy. In fact, police torture is on the rise, and despite this fact, the political environment is such that just last month AKP deputy Abdulkadir Akgül said he supports the use of force on "enemies of the state," drawing little nuance as to just how such a determination is made, when, and under what circumstances (á la torture, maybe . . . ?). Although measures have been passed to prevent torture by police, the practice is still rife and frequently occurs before arrest -- when the suspect is in custody, but has yet to be charged. People are often frequently subject to "open air" torture by police, as was the case of 15-year old Cüneyt Ertuş whose arm was broken in front of European news cameras in this year's Newroz riots.

As mentioned by the HRW report, rights violations take place in a culture of impunity. Ahmet Kaymaz and his 12-year old son Uğur were killed by police in Mardin in 2004, and though the officers accused of using excessive force were exonerated, the case drags on. Claiming that there was not going to be fair trial since the beginning, the family's lawyer, Tahir Elçi says, “When we look at the violation of rights that have happened in Turkey in the past year, we see how right we have been. These incidents are the proof of how dominant the culture of no-punishment is. If the police officers who killed Kaymaz and his son had gone through a fair trial then perhaps the public officials would not act this comfortably and Engin Ceber [click here for Ceber's case, which involves prison abuse] would not be killed. The trials about torture and extrajudicial killings have reached no where. Kaymaz case is a good example.” According to Bianet, Elçi was prosecuted for “attempting to influence the process of fair trial” because of his words about the case, but was acquitted.

Although HRW's report does not document incidents occuring past June 2008, the most recent police shooting to attract national attention occurred in August. 22-year old Fatih Cem İnci was shot by a plainclothes police officer for little apparent reason. To make the killing all the more heinous, the officer used his gun to prevent passersby from rendering assistance. İnci died of massive blood loss. Luckily, in İnci's case, police officer Mustafa Atasoy was charged with voluntary manslaughter and stood trial shortly after.

A further illustration of police officers' sense of being "above the law" occurred earlier this month when a young woman was accosted by a Kadıköy police officer who apparently objected to the newspaper she was reading. The woman hired a lawyer who managed to convince a prosecutor to investigate the incident, a move for which the police retaliated by detaining the woman and verbally harassing her. As HRW documents, police routinely use such methods of intimidation. Another incident of police violence that received quite a bit of attention this year was the beating of grocer Metin Şahin by two municipal police officers in the Keçiören district of Ankara. Police are thought to have targeted Şahin because he sold alcohol and is Alevi. Unlike other cases of police violence, Şahin's case was widely reported and an investigation opened.

Police have also drawn sharp criticism for using excessive force to control demonstrators. May Day celebrations are always a tense time of protests in Turkey, but this May, İstanbul police showed little restraint. As testified to by two incidents this past month, the use of police force in response to political demonstrations is frequently questionable. In the first incident, Ankara police used tear gas on a group of allegedly riotous demonstrators. In the second, İstanbul police in Beyoğlu harassed a group of women who were holding an exhibition of photographs portraying violence against women. The exhibition was to raise awareness of domestic violence, and according to Bianet, police used "physical violence" to break up the allegedly "unauthorized activity."

In addition to local police forces, Turkey also has a national police force, in addition to a military police force. The Gendarmerie -- or Jandarma in Turkish -- are a branch of the Turkish Armed Forces, and in theory, are chiefly designated to patrol rural areas, including the largely rural and Kurdish southeast. The Gendarmerie has long been criticized for human rights violations, and democracy/rights activists have long called for the military force to be placed under civilian control. Largely a bow the EU demands for reform, the government plans to place the Gendarmerie under a proposed civilian-governed Domestic Security Undersecretariat, a new unit that will be solely responsible for coordinating security units in fighting terrorism. Under the plan, both the national police department and the Gendarmerie will be placed under the undersecretariat. The change is likely to be met with fierce opposition; however, as HRW's most recent report indicates, civilian control is far from a panacea.

Here are some suggestions from HRW:
The report contains detailed recommendations to the Turkish government, including:

-The establishment of an effective, independent police complaints authority to investigate police misconduct, leading to the prosecution of offenders;

-Requiring police to report when they use stop-and-search powers, and giving the person stopped a form that includes the officers' names, identification numbers, and the reason for the stop;

-Legal clarification that use of lethal force should be a means of last resort and used only where necessary to protect life;

-Tamper-proof video and audio recording in police stations at all times; and

-Action to ensure that trial hearings of law enforcement officials facing prosecution take place without undue delay.
Action should also be taken to clearly condemn all forms of torture by police, including that occurring before arrest and in open air areas.

For the full report from HRW, "Closing Ranks Against Accountability: Barriers to Tackling Police Violence in Turkey," click here. (The report is available in Turkish, too.) For an earlier report issued this year by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), click here. For coverage of the report on BBC World News, click here for video.

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