The Long March
For the last eight years, the lawyer Kadriye Dogan has been supporting and advising victims of human rights abuses. There are two open consultation sessions a week in the Istanbul office of the Association for Human Rights, which was founded in 1986. Several dozen people turn up every week. Some complain about environmental misdeeds, others complain that hospitals have refused to treat them because they don't have insurance.
In such cases, activists like Dogan can only advise them how to take out a private case against the institutions.
But about half her clients come about human rights abuses involving state institutions: torture and maltreatment at police stations, denial of legal counsel during police detention, inhumane conditions in prisons, police action against freedom of assembly, political trials designed to restrict freedom of expression.
In the case of torture, the Association supports the victim in drawing up criminal charges, and lawyers follow up every criminal cases in which officials are accused of maltreatment and torture.
40,000 casualties in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict
Only a few years ago, most of those who came to human rights organisations had come into conflict with the state on account of their political activity. Many were Kurds or members of left-wing organisations who had been the victims of repression. In the nineties the situation in the Kurdish provinces was close to civil war.
40,000 people died as a result of the armed conflict between the army and the PKK (the Kurdish Workers' Party).
The situation in the Kurdish regions was the most significant reason for the catastrophic state of human rights in Turkey. Many provinces in the south-east of the country were under a state of emergency, and basic rights were practically no longer in force.
Policy has now changed towards the Kurds, wide ranging legal reforms have been introduced in the last three years which have strengthened the rights of the citizen against the state and there's been a noticeable policy of political de-escalation since the coming to office of the Islamic-conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All these factors have had an influence on human rights.
Only two new cases against human rights associations
A good example is the change which human rights organisations have experienced. They once were themselves the targets of state repression. In 2002, the Istanbul section of the Association for Human Rights was facing 104 legal cases. Last year only two new cases were brought.
Dogan, like other human rights activists, has become aware of a difference in her clientele. It's not so much the members of political groups who are coming to her now, but "normal" citizens who once scarcely had contact with human rights organisations.
For example: Hüsniye Günay, who was detained by police and tortured in connection with the murder of her mother-in-law. Two policemen were charged, one of them was eventually sentenced to three months in prison. Dogan appealed and the lenient sentence was overturned on the grounds that the judgement did not take into account the severity of the accusation of torture.
According to a new law, torture carries a prison sentence of up to twelve years. Now the case must be heard again. Dogan says, "If the arguments behind the Appeal Court judgement set a precedent, we'll have won quite a victory."
Erdogan: "No-tolerance policy towards torture"
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has stated repeatedly that his government has a no-tolerance policy towards torture. Indeed the human rights situation has improved considerably following several constitutional reforms, the revision of the criminal code and detention rules, as well as the adoption of a number of judgements by the European Court of Human Rights.
In the past suspects could be held in police detention for fourteen days without being brought before a judge. That often meant fourteen days of torture. Now the police can only hold someone for 24 hours, and even during this period, the detainee has the right to a lawyer. The lawyers' organisations in the bigger cities like Istanbul or Izmir have set up a telephone hotline through which detainees can call a free lawyer 24 hours a day.
But it's not possible really to speak of a no-tolerance policy towards torture. It would be easy to suspend officers accused of torture. But even after charges have been brought, officers remain in service. They are only suspended once they're found guilty.
No change of attitude
The Interior Ministry and the police system have not changed their attitude. But firm action by the police and ministry administration in torture cases would have a bigger effect than even the courses in human rights which are currently on the police training programme.
Furthermore, human rights organisations have documented many cases which have been drawn out so long that they've come under the statute of limitations. The case against policemen who tortured to death the student Birtan Altintas in 1991 caused outrage.
The policemen simply "couldn't be found". Thirteen years later, last March, the trial ended with the sentencing of four policemen to four and a half years in prison. The justice system is only slowly beginning to change—many of the new rules have only been in force for a few months.
The president of the Turkish constitutional court recently called for a change in the law so that private individuals would be allowed to bring cases before his court. That might reduce the number of times Turkey is found guilty at the European Court of Human Rights.
Notorious state security courts have only been renamed
Many reforms so far only remain on paper. For example, the notorious state security courts, which pursued "crimes against the state" and were instruments for the repression of the political opposition, have been abolished and the signs have been taken down, but the courts have simply been renamed criminal courts with the same judges and the same prosecutors.
The official Institute of Forensic Medicine, which has an important role in the investigation of accusations of torture, is also far from being an independent organisation.
Among its doctors are some who have received punishments from the national medical council after they issued incorrect reports saying that torture victims showed no evidence of torture. Prisoners who were suffering from the brain condition Werrnicke-Korsakoff syndrome following hunger strikes and who were released on humanitarian grounds, were issued with reports by the institute saying that they were fit to remain in prison.
Six hundred cases of torture last year
The situation is still serious, in spite of noticeable improvements in human rights in the last few years. The Foundation for Human Rights speaks of six hundred cases of torture last year. It insisted in the run-up to the EU commission's progress report on Turkey that torture was still "systematic".
But there has been progress as a result of the more relaxed situation in the Kurdish areas. The lifting of the ban on the Kurdish language, the right to offer private courses in Kurdish and the introduction of Kurdish programmes on radio and television, as well as the lifting of the state of emergency, have all contributed to the improvement.
But the reforms are half-hearted. Radio and television programmes, for example, are subject to numerous restrictions. Nationalists find democratisation, which is the main means of preventing abuses of human rights, frightening—for them it's a step towards secession and the break-up of the country.
This became clear recently when the Human Rights Commission presented its report on minorities and cultural rights to the prime minister. The report listed incidents of discrimination both in law and in practice.
The Commission is an innovation. It includes bureaucrats, representatives of NGOs and academics, as well as the Foundation for Human Rights and the Association for Human Rights. The Commission has already drawn up a series of excellent reports and made concrete proposals to improve human rights.
Uproar at the presentation of minority report
There was uproar at the press conference at which the report on minorities and cultural rights was to be presented. Some members of the Commission denounced the author of the report and the majority of the Commission's members which had approved the report, and accused them of being "traitors." They tore up the text which the chairman, the law professor Ibrahim Kabaoglu, was about to read.
The press conference had to be abandoned. The reaction of the government revealed its ambiguous relationship to the issue of human rights. Instead of standing behind the Commission, members of the government criticised the fact that the draft report was made available before it had been presented to the government. While the government boasts to the European Union that it has set up a Human Rights Commission, the Commission's proposals scarcely have any influence on policy.
On the other hand, a few years ago, anyone who presented such proposals as were in the Council's report on minorities would have have found themselves in prison.
Nowadays, even radical democratic proposals get an official stamp, even if the politicians don't yet adopt them. One needs plenty of staying power to fight for human rights in Turkey. Activists have been ground down over two decades, but they still haven't given up. Today there is at least hope. The political conditions have not been so favourable since the military coup in 1980.
© Ömer Erzeren
The author is a journalist living in Istanbul
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
This article was previously published in the December 2004/January 2005 edition of the amnesty international journal of Germany's Amnesty Internation section.