Human Rights in Turkey

Torture Remains Tricky Issue

Turkish leaders remain convinced that systematic torture in the country's prisons no longer exists. Some of the country's human rights activists beg to differ. Andreas Tzortzis reports from Ankara

photo: AP
Turkish police must rid themselves of the old mindset, say activists

​​On the door leading into Hünsü Öndül's office there are seven bullet holes, each circled in black marker. Inside the office of the president of the Turkish Human Rights Association there are two more on the bookcase, and another in a chair.

The murder attempt by a paramilitary group took place in 1998, when his predecessor sat behind the simple wooden desk. Akin Birdal escaped the assassination attempt, but the event's horrifying legacy remains. "We decided to keep this door, as a sort of bad memory," Öndül said.

See-saw battle

That's not to say all recent memories have been good. Since he took over the leadership of the organization he helped found 18 years ago, the human rights lawyer has himself been roughed up by thugs. Employees working in the organization's branch offices throughout Turkey are also the subject of harassment and the organization is constantly under the legal microscope, said Öndül.

"In the last five years, the operations against us are not physical, but are done through the law," said Öndül.

The words are unwelcome in the halls of Turkish government buildings nowadays. In the past three years, the country has undertaken massive, society-changing reforms as part of its single-minded drive to join the European Union.

The death penalty has been eliminated, rights given to Turkey's large Kurdish minority and laws passed that aim to stop systematic torture in Turkish prisons.

The steps are among the reasons the EU's executive body last week recommended the European Union take up membership negotiations with Turkey in the near future. Now it's up to European leaders to give final approval when they meet in December.

Just a little "ill treatment"

The country's chances are good. What Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has achieved through his AK Party's absolute parliamentary majority, has taken the country light years ahead, say Western diplomats and observers.

"Five years ago we thought we were a democracy," Ahmet Acet, the Turkish foreign ministry point man for European Union affairs, told a group of foreign journalists recently. "After going through this process we realized we were less democratic than we thought."

When Acet talks about human rights violations, he uses the words "ill treatment" instead of torture. It's a favorite term among government leaders who are especially touchy on the subject. In a recent interview with a group of journalists, Erdogan reacted testily to a question that suggested torture was still widespread.

"If you want to see what is happening please be my guest and come to Turkey and investigate for yourself," Erdogan said, echoing a speech he gave before the European Parliament. "Because a claim is not enough on this position. The claim has to be proven."

Numbers say torture still widespread

Öndül is happy to do so. According to IHD's numbers, there were 1,391 cases of torture across 32 provinces in 2003.

"It is important for the EU for the government to say that they don't support torture," said Öndül, a soft-spoken man who has spent more than 20 years working in human rights. "But that does not mean there is no torture in Turkey."

Officials acknowledge privately that more needs to be undertaken. Since the Turkish republic's founding in 1923, successive governments have preached that the citizen is there to serve the state, not the other way around. The philosophy meant that rights violations were duly ignored for the greater good of stabilizing the republic, said observers.

But the EU perspective has helped change minds, said Öndül. More than promises and pledges of governments past, the prospect of actually getting into the European Union, the region's most desireable club, has been an amazing catalyst.

"The progress made towards the EU has spread the idea to people that the state can be changed," said Öndül. He's hopeful that the course will hold.

"Democratization in Turkey is unavoidable," said Öndül, before ushering a few reporters out of his office. "And it will continue, whether the EU opens negotiations or not."

Andreas Tzortzis


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