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Turkey tribunal accuses state of systematic torture

An international opinion tribunal on Turkey is preparing an application to the International Criminal Court after finding that human rights violations, ranging from torture and abduction to the persecution of journalists and the judiciary, have become systematic since the country’s attempted coup in July 2016.

The tribunal, which consists of six judges, including former South African Constitutional Court Justice Johann van der Westhuizen, heard testimony from 16 victims over four days in Geneva last week and produced a 65-page opinion released at a media briefing on 28 September.

It concluded that if tested before an appropriate body and the intent of the accused proved, the acts of torture and enforced disappearances could be deemed crimes against humanity.

Relying on official statistics, with what it termed due scepticism, the tribunal found that some 3 000 complaints of torture are filed against the Turkish authorities every year, but that at most one percent of these lead to convictions of the accused. 

“With all due precaution given the absence of precise numbers, the report concludes that – certainly in the last five years – the use of torture has been systematic towards members of identified targeted groups,” the tribunal said.

The most-often targeted groups were suspected of Kurdish sympathies or links to the Gülenist movement, which has been designated a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government and whose leader Fetullah Gülen was accused by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of orchestrating the two-day coup attempt. However, those accused of ordinary crimes were subjected to torture too.

The tribunal said, based on the testimony of victims and established patterns of torture, “it can be established – without a doubt and with absolute clarity – that the frequent use of torture of certain groups of people does not constitute a spontaneous reaction of certain police officers but constituted an organised practice within the security services”. 

It said it believed that in recent years abductions, both in and outside Turkey’s borders, had happened in a “systematic and organised” manner and were linked to the state.

“These acts of torture and enforced disappearances cannot be viewed as mere isolated occurrences. Rather, in the opinion of the tribunal, they are to be considered as part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population that has taken place in Turkey at least since July 2016.”

The lack of sanction for torture was linked to the adoption of draconian legislative amendments, allowing for long-term detention at police stations and without access to legal counsel, and the erosion of the independence of the judiciary after the coup.

The tribunal noted that about 4 560 judges and prosecutors were summarily dismissed in its aftermath. Moreover, judges and prosecutors who handed down decisions or pursued investigations regarded as hostile by the state were detained and accused of belonging to terrorist organisations.

This constituted “a severe intimidation of the judiciary”, it said

The victims who testified before the tribunal included two teachers. One was tortured for 24 days after being arrested and interrogated about four students, one of whom the security services suspected had joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and the rest the Gülen movement. He was denied medical care and access to his lawyer and eventually charged with belonging to an armed organisation.

He told the tribunal those who tortured him were present in court, and threatened to do so again if he told the court what had transpired. He did so nonetheless. 

The second teacher was arrested in the wake of the attempted coup, severely tortured and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison, again with those who had tortured him present in court.

He fled Turkey while appealing the sentence because by then he was isolated from friends and family and branded a terrorist. The tribunal observed that torture victims’ worst trauma often stemmed from their subsequent alienation from society, or from threats by the security forces to harm their families. 

Human rights lawyer Erin Keskin testified that, in breach of international standards, Turkish courts did not accept independent medical reports in torture cases but only those from government forensics. 

Keskin has been sentenced to 29 years’ imprisonment and said she expected to be detained any day.

Turkey is a signatory to both the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits torture, and its own criminal code prescribes prison terms of two to 12 years for those found guilty of torment or torture. 

The government did not respond to invitations to make representations to the tribunal. The tribunal was of the view that Ankara was in breach of its obligations under international law, including the European Convention on Human Rights.

It said the past five years have seen the erosion of progressive gains, including the constitutional reforms of 2010, which allowed its highest court to accept individual applications for the protection of human rights, and the escalation of a “culture of impunity”.

This extended to openly admitting that it abducted Turkish dissidents abroad to repatriate them, though it denied internal abductions. 

The tribunal identified 63 cases of the former, and noted that again the authorities failed to investigate what has become an established form of prosecution of political dissidents. Of the latter, it said that contrary to the official denials there are reasonable grounds to believe that domestic abductions are carried out by individuals working with or for the state.

“The abductions amount to enforced disappearances,” said the president of the tribunal, Françoise Tulkens, the former vice-president of the European Court of Human Rights. She added that this, too, was in violation of the country’s international human rights obligations. 

Victims of state-sanctioned abuse have little recourse given the clampdown on the justice system. 

“In the view of the tribunal and referring to the lack of independence of the judiciary as well as the prevailing culture of impunity, effective access to justice and thus the protection of fundamental human rights in the current state of the judicial system in Turkey is illusory,” she said. 

The tribunal was informed by the research of six expert rapporteurs, whose chapter on media freedom concluded that the prosecution and pretrial detention of journalists has become widespread since the events of 15 and 16 July 2016.

The opinion of the tribunal is not legally binding but meant as a call to awareness and accountability.

The judges concluded that “the acts of torture and enforced disappearances committed in Turkey, in applications brought before an appropriate body and subject to the proof of the specific knowledge and intent of the accused, could amount to crimes against humanity”.

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