Amnesty: Turkey’s escalating abuses risk return to dark days of 1990s


A woman cries in front of a damaged mosque in Sur district in Diyarbakir, on Dec 11, 2015. (Photo: AFP/Ilyas Akengin)

The message of Amnesty’s latest statement on abuses in Turkey’s on-going operations in south eastern Turkey could hardly have been clearer.  Things are getting much, much worse, with  “growing evidence of severe human rights violations, including torture and impunity for human rights abuses.”  If Turkey continues this descent, Amnesty warns, it runs the risk of turning back the clock to the darkest days of the 1990s, when disappearances and systematic torture were everyday horrors.

Hurşit Külter’s Disappearance

Today is the first day of Eid al-Fitr, or Ramazan Bayrami, the celebration of the end of the holy month of Ramadan.  Kerime Külter, however, says that she will only have her holiday when her son, Hurşit Külter, is returned to her.

On 27 May Hurşit Külter, chair of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) for Şırnak, a city that has been under a 24-hour round the clock curfew since 14 March, disappeared. According to text messages he sent to his father, and chilling tweets by an unknown individual or individuals sent from an account that shares details of security operations and is believed to be operated by special operations police, he was detained by members of the security forces. There has been no information regarding Hurşit Külter’s whereabouts since that day, although the authorities deny that he is in their custody.  According to lawyers working on Hurşit Külter’s case, the Turkish authorities have failed to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance, including the identification of those who sent tweets reporting his detention and the questioning of members of the security forces on duty at the time. On 23 June, almost a month after Hurşit Külter’s disappearance, the Ministry of Interior announced that a civil servant from the Ministry had been instructed to inspect the incident.

Rising evidence of Abuse

Highlighting a growing record of abuses, Amnesty’s statement points to the “case of 42 people detained in Nusaybin, days after security operations and clashes between PKK affiliated individuals and security forces came to an end in the city,” which, it says, “is indicative of the Turkish authorities’ disregard for human rights standards in areas under curfew.”

A 24-hour round the clock curfew has been in place in Nusaybin since 13 March. On 26 May, 42 people, comprising 26 men, 11 women and 10 children (five girls and five boys) were detained by security forces. All of the individuals reported being ill-treated and having been hooded during detention. Lawyers representing some of those detained told Amnesty International that the individuals showed injuries consistent with those sustained during beatings and that one 16 year-old boy reported his finger had been broken after he refused to sign a statement he was not allowed to read and that his eye had been damaged during a beating by police officers while in police custody. The lawyer representing the boy told Amnesty International that, according to the doctor who examined him, he needs an operation to avoid losing sight in his eye. Amnesty International is alarmed that there is no indication of an investigation by prosecutors into the alleged ill-treatment. Those who have been remanded in pre-trial detention on anti-terrorism charges have not received the medical care they need in prison.

Rights violations continue, while outside observers denied access

Amnesty notes that there is virtually no oversight from outside observers to abuses during the security operations.

Turkish authorities have denied access to international organisations, creating what amounts to a black-out zone over areas under curfew. The Turkish authorities have not granted access to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and have prevented international NGOs from accessing areas formerly under curfew, where severe human rights abuses have been reported. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied having refused the Commissioner access to the region, stating that “international organizations operating in the field of human rights can easily visit the South-Eastern Anatolia Region”. Contrary to this announcement, police officers blocked an investigative team from Physicians for Human Rights from accessing the city of Cizre on 4 May on the grounds that they could only enter the city with the governor’s permission and a police escort. On 15 June police prevented an Amnesty International delegation from entering the city on different but similarly spurious grounds. 


Rows of houses and apartment buildings in Cizre have collapsed, and the structures that are still standing have broken pillars and parapets, burned bricks and bullet-scarred walls [Kiran Nazish/Al Jazeera]

Amnesty has long maintained that “24 hour round the clock curfews and accompanying restrictions are disproportionate limitations on the rights of residents in areas under curfew, and amount to collective punishment.”

The organization has also expressed concerns regarding the use of heavy weaponry, which should never be deployed in populated urban areas, and, more broadly, regarding the use of force by security forces, which has been disproportionate, unlawful and has endangered the lives of unarmed residents. Furthermore, Amnesty International has found no evidence that effective investigations have been conducted into killings occurring under curfew since September 2015.

In June the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission concluded that the Turkish authorities’ curfew decisions did not meet the requirements of legality as set out in Turkey’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Creating legal basis for culture of impunity

These human rights abuses have been accompanied by legislation which seems directly aimed at extending Turkey’s dangerous culture of impunity.  It would effectively end civilian court oversight of the security services.

Measures passed by Turkey’s Parliament on 23 June reduce judicial oversight of security operations and erect barriers to the effective investigation of military officials, who are already protected by an overwhelming culture of impunity for human rights abuses. The legislative amendments will require the permission of the Prime Minister for criminal investigations into the Chief of Staff and senior commanders while the investigation of lower ranking officers’ will be subject to the permission of the Interior or Defence Ministers. Any criminal prosecution of military officials for criminal conduct during security operations will be pursued in military courts. The amendments also grant powers to military commanders to issue search warrants without prior judicial authorization.

Return to an ugly past?

The AKP won its early international reputation for helping to end the ugly pattern of human rights abuses and murder that had scarred the preceding decade.  Amnesty now sees worrying signs that Turkey is turning back the clock, calling on “Turkish authorities to urgently review their approach to security operations, bringing its law and practice in line with international human rights standards.”  A return to the widespread and systematic human rights violations carried out by the Turkish state during the 1990s, Amnesty concludes, “would be a disaster for Turkey’s current and future generations. The international community, especially Turkey’s allies, must not stay silent while watching this steep decline.”

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University

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