Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The human rights picture in Turkey grew worse during 1990, with increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, on the press, and on political activists. Torture also continued unabated.

Most torture takes place in the political sections of police headquarters during the initial interrogation of a suspect. Human rights activists and lawyers report, as they have for some years, that over 90 percent of political suspects are tortured, as are over 50 percent of people suspected of ordinary crimes. Torture in police stations includes suspending the victim for prolonged periods, applying electric shock, directing highly pressurized water at the victim, and falaka (beating the soles of the feet).

During 1990, Helsinki Watch received credible reports of seven deaths in detention under suspicious circumstances.4 In three of the cases, security forces alleged that the detainees had committed suicide. The seven were:

  • Emine Yilmaz, 22, who was arrested in April on charges of using counterfeit German marks, died the evening of the day she was jailed. The Public Prosecutor opened an investigation, and the corpse was sent to the Istanbul Forensic Institute for analysis.
  • Ali Akkan died in police custody in Antalya on May 6. He had been suspected of giving shelter to a member of an illegal organization. Authorities claimed that he committed suicide by jumping out the window of Antalya Police Headquarters. Akkan's family and the Human Rights Association have asked for an autopsy.
  • Besir Algan, 36, a peasant who, according to Member of Parliament Fuat Atalay, had been taken into custody and then shot dead by security forces in the village of Budakli, in the province of Mardin, died on May 22.
  • Serdar Cekic Abbasoglu, 23, a robbery suspect, was found dead in bed in Ankara Central Jail on June 4, following interrogation. The authorities claimed that there were no signs of blows on Abbasoglu's body, but 67 fellow detainees asserted that he had been bleeding from his nose and mouth, and that his bed was stained with blood on the day of his death.
  • Ibrahim Ates, a robbery suspect, was detained on July 15. He was allegedly killed by being thrown from the fourth-floor balcony of a police station in Mersin ten days later. Police claimed the death was a suicide.
  • Abdurrahim Tanribilir, from the Duzova village of Cizre, was, according to his mother, beaten at home and then detained on September 7. His body was returned on September 8. The authorities said that he had committed suicide.
  • Yakup Aktas died in detention in the Interrogation Center at Mardin Gendarmery Regiment Commandership, one week after his detention on November 18. Security forces alleged that he had suffered a heart attack. His family reported a head wound and bruises on body.

Torture is not confined to adults. Some children under 18 (including some as young as 11 or 12) have allegedly been beaten by the police, after having been detained for such offenses as writing "No to war" on a public wall, demonstrating on May Day, fighting, and belonging to an illegal organization.

Nor is torture confined to police stations. In 1990, several credible reports alleged a resurgence of torture in prisons, largely in the form of mass beatings with truncheons or wooden sticks.

Political activists continue to be incarcerated. Some thousands of such prisoners, hundreds of whom have neither used nor advocated violence, are held in various prisons in Turkey. Some – defendants in mass trials, mostly of left-wing organizations – have been in custody since 1979 or 1980.

Turks' right to freedom of expression is violated daily. Freedom of the press is routinely restricted; at present, at least 34 journalists and editors are in prison for what they have written or published. Many are serving absurdly long sentences; one journalist received a sentence of 1,086 years, later reduced on appeal to 700 years. (No one will serve more than 36 years, the maximum time permitted by Turkish law.) While Turkish citizens are freer to voice their opinions and to criticize the government than they were during the period following the September 1980 military coup, they continue to risk harassment, torture, criminal charges and imprisonment for expressing their views. During 1990, scores of journalists were charged with offenses such as spreading separatist, communist or religious propaganda, insulting the president, insulting government officials or military personnel, or injuring Turkey's reputation while abroad – all crimes contained in the Turkish Penal Code, which was taken from Mussolini's Italy in 1938. Dozens of issues of journals have been banned or confiscated, sometimes before reaching newsstands.

In April, the Council of Ministers issued a new order, Decree 413, which equipped the regional governor in southeastern Turkey with extraordinary powers to censor the press, exile people who are deemed "a danger to law and order," remove judges and public prosecutors, and suspend trade-union rights. Following this and other decrees issued later in April, an almost complete censorship was imposed on news from southeastern Turkey, where a guerrilla war is being waged by a separatist Kurdish organization, the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Most news from that region is now based on information released by the regional governor's office. Journalists who try to cover Kurdish issues or investigate allegations of abuse on the part of security forces run a serious risk of criminal charges and prison sentences. Some have been expelled from towns in the southeast.

Publishing is still a hazardous profession in Turkey. During 1990, dozens of books were banned or confiscated, and in many cases, their authors were detained, charged and sometimes tried.

Freedom of association also encounters restrictions. Helsinki Watch has received reports of harassment experienced by more than twenty different associations during 1990. The harassment included raids on offices, prohibition of meetings, bans on organizations, and detention, interrogation, torture and trial of members. The organizations affected ranged from the Turkish Farmers' Association, the Nurses' Association, and the Association of Educators, to the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association. Criminal prosecutions were initiated for making anti-war statements, taking a poll on trade unionism, calling for early general elections, and being a communist organization.

Freedom of assembly was also frequently curtailed during 1990. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and Turkey's support of US and UN actions against Iraq, many anti-war meetings in Turkey were banned or broken up, on grounds of "disturbing public order" or "shouting slogans and distributing illegal leaflets." At one such rally, 155 people were detained; most were released after a few hours. A rally of poets and writers to protest the imprisonment of people for their opinions was banned by the governor of Istanbul in June. A rally organized by 19 editors of left-wing reviews to protest the draconian Decree 413 was banned, and at a resulting press conference, all 19 editors were detained by the police. In addition, dozens of university students have been detained for varying periods for demonstrating on university issues or against war. Two students were shot and wounded by the police in September for taking part in an unauthorized anti-war demonstration; the police had opened fire on a group of about 1,000. One of the students was hospitalized for several days. The police also detained civil servants who scheduled a rally to protest their small salary increases, as well as political demonstrators protesting various government actions.

Human rights monitors fared badly in 1990. At least 23 members of various branches of the Human Rights Association (HRA) and 17 members of TAYAD (Association of Friends and Relatives of Detainees and Convicted Prisoners) were arrested, interrogated, tried, or sentenced during the year.5 At least one monitor, Ali Ozler, president of the Tunceli HRA branch, was convicted and given a six-year-and-eight-month prison sentence in October for "making separatist propaganda and helping the PKK." In addition, in November, the Gazientep HRA branch was closed down, and the Istanbul branch was raided and its documents, including membership lists, seized.

Political freedom continued to be restricted. Several parties that were banned following the September 1980 coup are still outlawed. The police continue to detain and arrest many people charged with membership in illegal communist organizations. In addition, a trial continues of two Communists who returned to Turkey in 1987 to establish the Turkish United Communist Party. Detained on their return, the two leaders spent two-and-a-half years in prison awaiting trial; after a 20-day hunger strike, they were finally released in May 1990. Meanwhile, meetings of the party have been banned, and the government has brought legal proceedings to declare the party illegal.

The Socialist Party, which was set up in 1988, was promptly banned, but later legalized by the Constitutional Court. Nonetheless, its officials and members have been arrested and tried for such offenses as "spreading separatist propaganda" and conducting anti-war demonstrations. Members of the Socialist Unity Party have also been detained.

In other actions, the mayor of Nusaybin was dismissed by the Interior Ministry in April for statements deemed to be in support of the PKK. The mayor of Canakkale was suspended in April for snubbing President Turgut Ozal.

The Kurdish minority in Turkey continues to suffer abuse. Caught between Turkish security forces and the separatist guerrillas of the PKK, Kurdish civilians are harassed, tortured and sometimes killed. The PKK has been waging a guerrilla war in southeast Turkey since 1984. About 2,000 have died in that time at the hands of security forces and the PKK, over a third of them villagers. The Turkish government's pattern of detention and torture of perceived political opponents is even more pronounced in southeastern Turkey than in the rest of the country. Village guards, who are charged by security forces with protecting their villages, have become targets of PKK attacks. The PKK also continues to inflict casualties on civilians.

In many villages, civilians refuse to serve as village guards, and then are forced by government forces to evacuate their villages with their families. Many thousands of such forced evacuations occurred in the southeast during 1990. In some cases, security forces have burned entire villages to force the occupants to abandon their homes and fields.

In addition, the Turkish government continues to deny the ethnic identity of the Kurdish minority by forbidding the use of the Kurdish language in official settings and by denying Kurds the rights to give their children Kurdish names, to celebrate Kurdish holidays, and to perform Kurdish songs and dances. Although in 1989 the government announced that families would be able to speak Kurdish when visiting relatives in prison, Helsinki Watch has received reports that Kurdish is still not allowed in some prisons. Lawyers also continue to report that they are not allowed to converse in Kurdish with clients, even when the client does not speak Turkish.

US Policy

The Bush administration has had no apparent impact on human rights in Turkey, despite the enumeration of many serious human rights violations in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989, issued in early 1990. Instead of minimizing ongoing human rights abuses while stressing Turkey's progress in human rights, as it did in 1986, 1987 and 1988, the 1989 report began by acknowledging that "continuing instances of torture were the principal human rights problem in 1989." The report cited allegations of deaths under torture and described the routine methods of torture used by police while suspects are held in incommunicado detention. However, it only vaguely alluded to the frequency with which suspects are tortured, stating that "[s]uspects in common and political crimes frequently appear to be tortured by the police during initial interrogations while held incommunicado," without explicitly referring to reports by lawyers that 90 percent of political suspects and 50 percent of common-crime suspects are tortured in detention. The report also described the inadequate response of the Turkish legal system to allegations of torture, the difficulty of obtaining a fair trial in Turkey, the serious restraints that continue to exist on freedom of expression, association and assembly, and the discrimination and criminal prosecutions directed against Kurds and others with Kurdish affiliations.

Despite its own catalogue of persistent abuses of human rights in Turkey, the Bush administration, like previous administrations, has ignored Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits military and other forms of assistance to a country that "engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights." Turkey remains the third largest recipient of US aid, after Israel and Egypt. In fiscal year 1990, Turkey received $497,850,000 in military assistance and $14,264,000 in Economic Support Funds. For fiscal year 1991, Congress has earmarked $500 million for military aid, and the administration has requested $50 million in Economic Support Funds.6

Although Section 502B contains an exception to the ban on aid if the President submits a written statement to Congress explaining that "extraordinary circumstances exist warranting provision of such assistance," no administration has ever submitted a statement explaining the "extraordinary circumstances" that warrant continued provision of assistance to Turkey. This is more than an academic point, because an official expression of concern over human rights abuses in the context of the aid question would provide a powerful incentive for the Turkish government to curtail abuses.

Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, in his second year as US ambassador to Turkey, has referred in speeches given to Turkish groups to the need for Turkey to improve its human rights record. He has also made direct mention of "allegations of large-scale torture" and the "problem of incommunicado detention." However, a review of the ambassador's speeches, as well as of public State Department briefings on Turkey, fails to reveal any reference to the extent of torture, the methods used, or the deaths that have allegedly occurred as a result of torture. Nor has the ambassador spoken out on the incarceration of hundreds of political prisoners who have reportedly neither committed nor advocated violence; criticized the severe restrictions on freedom of expression in Turkey; or protested the Turks' treatment of its Kurdish minority, especially the forced evacuation of thousands of villagers for refusal to provide village guards for security forces. Although some of this information was contained in the country report, the ambassador has lessened its impact by failing to reinforce it in public statements. There is also no indication that the ambassador made any public statement criticizing the issuance of Decree 413, perhaps the major step backward in 1990. Instead, he has said that the Turkish "human rights situation has steadily improved."7

Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter appears once again to have adopted a position that he had earlier abandoned, to the effect that torture is due to inadequate training of the police force, rather than to a lack of political will to end it. On February 21, Assistant Secretary Schifter told reporters at a State Department briefing that the Turkish government has made "efforts over a period of time to effect change" in this area, but that "an overhaul of the entire police force" was necessary. He did not address the lack of prosecution for torture.

Turkey, of course, is a strategic ally of the United States. For many years, it was seen as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and as an important listening post. However, following recent changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Turkish government officials briefly feared that their country's importance to the United States and NATO had declined, and that US foreign assistance would diminish accordingly. Turkey's prompt response to the Gulf crisis in August reestablished its role as a crucial ally; Secretary of State James Baker, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, called Turkey "a strategic anchor of our alliance."

Helsinki Watch recommends that the US government condemn the human rights abuses detailed in this report and, as required by Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, state clearly what, if any, extraordinary circumstances warrant provision of military assistance and Economic Support Funds to Turkey in light of its consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.

In addition, as we have noted in the past, the administration should use its best efforts to persuade the Turkish government to:

  • Acknowledge the pattern of torture in police detention centers and take steps to end it.
  • Enforce the September 1989 decree guaranteeing detainees the right to be represented by attorneys from the moment of detention.
  • Prohibit the use in court of confessions obtained by torture.
  • Prosecute and increase sentences for torturers.
  • Take steps to improve the inhumane and degrading conditions that now exist in Turkish prisons and detention centers.
  • Allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international organizations to visit detainees and prisoners on a regular basis.
  • Release from prison and detention centers all those held for the expression of their peaceful political views.
  • Stop all legal actions against the press and against writers and publishers based on the content of their writings.
  • Amend the Penal Code to eliminate Articles 141, 142 and 163, which forbid advocating communism or the establishment of a religious state, and other Penal Code articles that are used to deprive Turks of their human rights, such as Article 158, which forbids "insulting the President," Article 159, which forbids "insulting or vilifying the Turkish nation," and Article 140, which forbids "publishing in a foreign country untrue, malicious, or exaggerated rumors or news about the internal situation" of Turkey.
  • Acknowledge the existence of the Kurdish minority in Turkey and grant its members the civil and political rights held by other Turks.
  • End restrictions that deprive Kurds of their ethnic identity, including restrictions on the use of Kurdish language, music and dance.

We also recommend that the Bush administration urge the Turkish government to:

  • Rescind Decree 413 and restore the rights suspended by that decree.
  • Abolish the village guard system.
  • Protect the civilian population in areas where guerrilla warfare is taking place and comply with international laws governing internal armed conflicts.
  • End efforts to relocate civilians from troubled areas except in instances in which the security of the civilians or imperative military necessity so demand.
  • Punish appropriately the abuse and humilitation of civilians by security forces.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

During 1990, Helsinki Watch continued its efforts to improve human rights in Turkey by trying to draw public attention to Turkey's appalling record and to persuade the Bush administration to exert greater pressure on Turkey to reform its abusive practices.

In February, a 12-page newsletter, "Freedom of Expression," was issued as an update to the March 1989 Helsinki Watch report, Paying the Price – Freedom of Expression in Turkey. The newsletter revealed that criminal cases had been brought against nearly 400 journalists in 1989 for what they had written; that 33 journalists had been imprisoned for their writings; and that hundreds of magazines and books had been confiscated or banned.

In May 1990, a joint Helsinki Watch/Danish Helsinki Committee mission visited Turkey to investigate government practices under the new Decree 413. The mission met with lawyers, human rights activists, doctors, business people, journalists and villagers in Istanbul, Diyarbakir and Siirt. In June, a 22-page newsletter was issued, describing the continued denial of the Kurds' ethnic identity; killings, harassment and abuse by security forces; and the forced evacuation of villages whose inhabitants had been given a choice of acting as village guards for the military or abandoning their villages. In September, Helsinki Watch issued a more detailed, 52-page report, entitled Destroying Ethnic Identity – The Kurds of Turkey, An Update.

In October, Helsinki Watch sent an observer to the trial of Turgut Kazan, the president of the Istanbul Bar Association, and members of the Bar Association's executive committee. In an attempt to restrict the Bar Association and the legal profession, the government tried to remove the executive committee. The case received a good deal of international attention and was later dropped.

During 1990, Helsinki Watch sent protests to the Turkish government on fourteen separate occasions. Many of the protests addressed the detention of human rights lawyers, writers, editors and political leaders. Others asked for investigations into the June 9, 1990 Cevrimli massacre in the southeast in which 27 people were killed – the government blamed the PKK, but human rights activists in the area challenged this assumption – and the alleged poisoning of Iraqi Kurdish refugees in 1989 and 1990 in camps in the southeast. Two protested actions by the State Security Court: an investigation into the SHP's report on Turkish Kurds in the southeast; and the prepublication banning of an issue of the newspaper Sabah, which contained unspecified statements about the 1988 wounding of then-Prime Minister Turgut Ozal. One protested charges brought against the Istanbul Bar Association, and one condemned the placement in a mental institution of an army lieutenant who had sent a critical telegram to President Ozal. One protested the refusal of the government to issue a passport to Zubeyir Aydar, a Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist, who had been invited to the United States to be honored by Helsinki Watch for his human rights activities. Many of these Helsinki Watch interventions received considerable attention in the Turkish press.

4 In Turkey, suspects can be detained incommunicado, without charges, for periods of between one and 30 days, depending on the type of offense. At the end of this period, a suspect is either released without charge, or formally charged and kept (or taken into) custody. Some suspects are released pending trial, but many are detained throughout the pretrial and trial period. Trials, particularly mass political trials, can continue for many years. Some trials of the left-wing group Dev-Sol, for example, have been underway since 1980.

5 See Human Rights Watch, Persecution of Human Rights Monitors, December 1989 to December 1990 (December 1990).

6 In addition, the administration has reportedly increased the quotas on textiles and clothing that Turkey can sell in the United States.

7 Meeting with the press, December 27, 1989.

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