Republic of Turkey

Head of state: Süleyman Demirel
Head of government: Bülent Ecevit (replaced Mesut Yilmaz in January)
Capital: Ankara
Population: 63.5 million
Official language: Turkish
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice

Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the armed opposition group Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), was arrested and tried on charges of treason and separatism. He was sentenced to death in June, after an unfair trial, raising fears that Turkey might resume executions after a 15-year de facto moratorium. Hopes for a continuing moratorium and the abolition of the death penalty were, however, revived with Turkey's acceptance as a candidate for European Union (EU) membership. Protests against Abdullah Öcalan's arrest resulted in mass detentions. There were regular reports of torture from all over the country, and several people reportedly died as a result of torture. Ten political prisoners were killed by security officers in Ankara Closed Prison in September in disputed circumstances. Harassment of human rights defenders continued throughout 1999. The president of the Human Rights Association (IHD) was imprisoned. A change in the law led to the release of several writers and broadcasters and prevented some from being imprisoned. Other prisoners of conscience remained imprisoned or were tried for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.


Armed conflict between Turkish security forces and the PKK has continued since 1984 in the southeast of Turkey, which is mainly inhabited by Kurds. Both sides were responsible for human rights abuses during the conflict, in which an estimated 4,500 civilians were killed, around 3,000 settlements evacuated or burned down and up to three million people internally displaced. In mid-1999, Abdullah Öcalan reiterated the PKK's unilateral cease-fire, and urged the PKK to withdraw from Turkish territory.

Bülent Ecevit's centre-left Democratic Left Party (DSP) won general elections in April and formed a coalition government with the extreme right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the centre-right Motherland Party (ANAP).

The pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HADEP) and the Islamist Virtue Party (FP) were threatened by a ban. State of emergency legislation remained in force in five provinces and in a sixth was lifted only in December.

In December, Turkey was accepted as a candidate for EU membership. Accession negotiations were to start once certain criteria were met, including improved guarantees for respect of human rights. In the meantime, the human rights situation would be monitored and assessed and Turkish laws screened for compliance with EU standards.

The trial of Abdullah Öcalan

Abdullah Öcalan was taken into the custody of Turkish security forces on 15 February in Kenya. He was brought to Turkey and detained under special security measures on the island of Imrali in the Marmara Sea. His main trial before a State Security Court on Imrali started on 31 May. Abdullah Öcalan was held responsible for the deaths of 29,000 people (civilians, soldiers and PKK militants) who lost their lives in the conflict.

National law and international fair trial standards were violated throughout the pre-trial detention period and the trial. AI considered that Abdullah Öcalan's rights were violated, including the right to be brought promptly before a judge, the right to defend oneself in person or through legal counsel, and the right to a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal. Abdullah Öcalan's lawyers were harassed, attacked and threatened both by angry crowds and by police officers. During the trial, a Constitutional amendment in response to decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and international scrutiny of the trial led to the replacement of the military judge hearing the case by a civilian judge.

Death penalty

On 29 June Abdullah Öcalan was convicted of "treason and separatism" under Article 125 of the Penal Code and sentenced to death. The death sentence was upheld by the Appeal Court in November, giving rise to fears that Turkey might resume executions after a 15-year de facto moratorium. At least 48 other death sentences had been upheld by the Appeal Court and could be carried out if confirmed by parliament. However, at the end of 1999 there were signs that Turkey might abolish the death penalty.

Torture and impunity

Torture continued to be widespread. After the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan, the number of reports of torture increased compared to the previous two years. Torture mainly occurred in police or gendarmerie custody in the days following arrest.

People suspected of offences under the jurisdiction of State Security Courts may be held incommunicado for up to four days, and in practice this period was often extended. Procedures laid down in the Criminal Procedure Code for the registration of detainees and for notification of families were often ignored, facilitating "disappearances" and torture.

Torture methods included severe beatings, being stripped naked and blindfolded, hosing with pressurized ice-cold water, hanging by the arms or wrists bound behind the victim's back, electro-shock torture, beating the soles of the feet, death threats, and sexual assaults including rape. Among the victims were children, women and elderly people, villagers, political activists and the socially disadvantaged.

Several people reportedly died as a result of torture. Among them was at least one non-political detainee, Alpaslan Yelden. Ten police officers were prosecuted in connection with his death in Izmir.

  • On 5 March Süleyman Yeter, a trade unionist, and four other people were taken into custody at the Anti-Terror Branch of Istanbul Police Headquarters. The following morning Süleyman Yeter told another detainee that he had been stripped naked, severely beaten, sprayed with cold water and forced to lie on ice. He could not move his arms. On 7 March, an official confirmed that Süleyman Yeter had died in custody. His lawyers saw marks on his body that they believed to be evidence of torture. Immediately before his detention in March 1999, Süleyman Yeter had been invited to identify police officers who were on trial for having tortured him and 14 other detainees in early 1997. In late November, three police officers went on trial in connection with Süleyman Yeter's death in custody.
  • Two Kurdish girls,16-year-old N.C.S. and 19-year-old Fatma Deniz Polattas, were detained and reportedly tortured for several days at the Anti-Terror Branch of Police Headquarters in Iskenderun in early March. They were held blindfolded and naked. N.C.S. was exposed to verbal and sexual harassment. Fatma Deniz Polattas was anally raped. A formal complaint was lodged, but the prosecutor decided not to prosecute the police officers.


AI campaigned against impunity for torturers in Turkey with a report issued in April which detailed cases in which complaints of serious human rights violations were not pursued by the authorities. Detainees frequently could not identify their torturers because they were almost invariably blindfolded during interrogation. Medical evidence of torture was frequently suppressed. Medical officers who falsified reports have been promoted, and doctors who scrupulously carried out their duties have been put on trial or imprisoned.

Prosecutors were reluctant to investigate security officers. Judges failed to investigate allegations of torture. This also contributed to unfair trials. Statements allegedly elicited under torture were frequently admitted as evidence in trials. In the rare cases in which security officers were convicted, sentences were light.

A new Law on the Prosecution of Civil Servants came into effect on 5 December, but still required the permission of a senior official for the prosecution of suspected human rights abusers. AI recommended that the decision whether or not to prosecute security officers for human rights violations should be taken only by the judicial authorities.

AI welcomed a new law for the prevention of torture, which increased the penalties for torture and ill-treatment and penalized health personnel who conceal torture.

Killings in disputed circumstances

On 26 September, 10 prisoners from left-wing organizations, two of them members of the Central Committee of the Turkey Communist Workers' Party (TKIP), were killed in Ankara Closed Prison, and dozens were wounded by security officers. The circumstances were disputed and the lawyers and relatives of the dead were excluded from the autopsy. The lawyers filed a complaint against 49 security officers.

Pressure on human rights defenders

The risk of attacks on officials and members of Turkey's largest human rights organization, the Human Rights Association (IHD), increased when the Office of the Chief of the General Staff issued a press statement on 25 February, shortly after Abdullah Öcalan's detention, linking human rights organizations to the PKK. On the same day, members of the IHD in Istanbul and in Ankara received death threats by telephone.

After repeated harassment and a series of detentions, the weekly vigil held by the "Saturday Mothers" for the "disappeared" had to be ended after nearly four years.

Branches of the IHD and the Islamic-oriented association Mazlum Der were closed temporarily. Ten executive members of the IHD Diyarbakir branch, on trial since October 1998 under the Anti-Terror Law on charges of producing propaganda for the PKK, were acquitted in May 1999. However, the court did not rule on the IHD's request to reopen the Diyarbakir branch, an important source of information on human rights violations in the southeast of Turkey. The branch was closed in May 1997.

  • Akin Birdal, then President of the IHD, was imprisoned on 3 June only a year after barely surviving an assassination attempt and in clear violation of his right to freedom of expression. Despite concerns about his health, he was made to serve two one-year prison sentences under Article 312(2) of the Penal Code. He had called for a peaceful approach to the Kurdish issue and had used the phrase "the Kurdish people" in speeches in 1995 and 1996. Akin Birdal faced numerous pending prosecutions for his public statements and activities as IHD President. AI feared that his imprisonment was part of the government's effort to discredit and hinder the work of human rights defenders. In April, AI's German Section awarded Akin Birdal a special human rights prize. In September he was released from prison for six months on medical grounds – a welcome but insufficient step. He continued to be banned from political activities and from leaving the country.

Prisoners of conscience

Writers, publishers, trade unionists, teachers, local and national politicians, human rights defenders and many others continued to be imprisoned or tried after they exercised their right to freedom of expression. Those particularly targeted had expressed opinions on issues related to the Kurdish question or the role of Islam in politics. For example, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and a leading figure of the Islamist Virtue Party, was imprisoned from 26 March to 25 July because of a speech he delivered in December 1997.

In August a change in the law suspended sentences, trials and investigations related to offences committed through the media, on condition the offence was not repeated within three years. As a result at least 22 prisoners were conditionally released in early September. Human rights defenders such as Eren Keskin, Zeynep Baran and Ôanar Yurdatapan, who were due to be imprisoned, also benefited from the measure. Other prisoners of conscience, who had not expressed their opinions through the media, remained imprisoned.

  • A 54-year-old blind lawyer, Esber Yagmurdereli, faced more than 17 years' imprisonment after challenging the government over the status of the Kurdish population. He was arrested in Ankara in June 1998 and sentenced to 10 months' imprisonment for a speech he made in 1991, plus the remainder of a life sentence he received in 1978. This sentence, imposed after an unfair trial, was suspended in 1991 on condition that he commit no more offences of a political nature.

Other concerns

A number of possible extrajudicial executions were reported. Seventeen-year-old Necmettin Kahraman was shot in Kiziltepe, in Mardin province, when the security forces fired on a non-violent demonstration on 19 February calling for independent monitoring of Abdullah Öcalan's trial. In September, AI was informed that no investigation had yet been opened into his death. Thirteen-year-old Ôaban Çadiroglu, a peddler, was reportedly beaten to death by police officers in Van on 16 August. Erdinç Aslan, allegedly a radical leftist, was shot on 5 October in his home in Adana. Police had previously broken into the flat of his neighbour, Murat Bektas, and shot him in front of his wife and young son. A trial was opened against six police officers, one of whom was held in custody, on 1 December.

At least 29 deliberate and arbitrary killings were attributed to armed opposition groups. The PKK was held responsible for bombings and attacks after the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan. The armed groups DHKP-C and TIKKO reportedly killed alleged informers. The police stated that 13 people were killed in clashes between two wings of the Hizbullah .

AI campaigned against the forcible repatriation of Iranian refugees. The organization expressed regret when Rustam Mamatkulov and Zeyniddin Askarov were forcibly returned to Uzbekistan from Turkey on 26 March 1999 despite a formal request from the European Court of Human Rights not to deport them.

AI country reports and visits


  • Turkey: "Creating a silent society" – Turkish Government prepares to imprison leading human rights defender (AI Index: EUR 44/005/99)
  • Turkey: Abdullah Öcalan's detention and trial must conform with international standards (AI Index: EUR 44/018/99)
  • Turkey: The duty to supervise, investigate and prosecute (AI Index: EUR 44/024/99)
  • Turkey: Death sentence after unfair trial – The case of Abdullah Öcalan (AI Index: EUR 44/040/99)


AI delegates visited Turkey in March and November to research human rights violations. In February, April, October, November and December delegates observed sessions of trials including the IHD Diyarbakir branch trial; trials of police officers in connection with the torture of Süleyman Yeter and others in 1997, and his death in custody in 1999; the death in custody of Alpaslan Yelden; and the retrial of police officers charged with torture of children in Manisa. AI sent a delegate twice to trials of Abdullah Öcalan. He observed the trial in Ankara in April, but was not admitted to Imrali in June.

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