HRW: Turkey's police and watchmen involved in torture

“Turkish authorities should immediately investigate these credible allegations of serious abuse and hold those responsible accountable," said deputy program director at Human Rights Watch.

There is credible evidence that Turkish police and community “night watchmen” have committed serious abuses against at least fourteen people in six incidents in Diyarbakır and İstanbul in the last two months, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today.

HRW said: “The cases illustrate a worrying pattern of violent arrest, beatings, and other abuse that seems to be part of an increase in violent treatment in custody. They should be fully investigated. In four of the cases, the authorities have publicly refuted or countered allegations of abuse rather than making a commitment to investigate them. In recent days, media outlets released video footage and reports that appear to show three more cases in other Turkish cities. Because of the time frame, Human Rights Watch has not been able to investigate them.”

“The immediate knee-jerk denial of police wrongdoing when faced with reports of police violence, torture, and ill-treatment – specifically in recent incidents in Diyarbakır – is sadly familiar, but not acceptable,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish authorities should immediately investigate these credible allegations of serious abuse and hold those responsible accountable.”

HRW said that, in two incidents, police officers set police dogs on people in their homes, leaving them with bite marks on their limbs. In two others, involving the detention of suspects in the fatal shooting of police officers, images of the detainees with signs of having been beaten and otherwise abused were posted on private social media accounts. In all cases, the authorities have claimed – without evidence – that those alleging police ill-treatment violently resisted arrest and the police.

Human Rights Watch reviewed photos, videos, and legal and medical documents in the incidents examined, and interviewed lawyers, families, and witnesses and, where possible, the victims.

In the most recent episode that Human Rights Watch documents, on July 18, 2020, the police detained three suspects, two of them children, in İstanbul, in connection with the fatal shooting of one police officer and injury of another. One of them, a 17-year-old identified by his initials because he is a child, told lawyers that police beat him with a cable and fists, kicked him in the face several times, and “bounced his head against the walls like a ball.”

Human Rights Watch viewed photographs of the detainees posted online by anonymous accounts in which bruising consistent with his allegations was clearly visible. The police account of the arrest claims that the police officers used proportionate force to restrain him when he attempted to injure himself.

Masked police raided Sevil Çetin’s house in Diyarbakır city, in the country’s southeast, on June 26. Çetin, an official for the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and former elected mayor, told her lawyers that the police broke down her door and let two dogs attack and bite her. She said: “[Officers] grabbed my hair and pushed me on the ground. They were kicking me and hitting me with the back of their guns, spitting on my half-naked body. They said, ‘If you had lived on the fifth floor, you would have jumped off and we wouldn’t have had to deal with you.’” Human Rights Watch has seen photographs of Çetin’s injuries.

Masked counterterrorism officers raided the Diyarbakır home of Şeyhmus and Menice Yılmaz and their three children on May 31. Şeyhmus Yılmaz said that the police held him on the ground as dogs bit his arms and scratched his body: “I kept telling them to check my ID so that they would understand I was not the person they were looking for. But they kept saying ‘Hit him, kill him!’”Human Rights Watch has seen photographs of Yılmaz’s injuries.

Lawyers for Muhammed Emir Cura, a suspect in the killing of a police officer in Diyarbakır, said that Cura told them that at the police station officers stripped him, beat him with batons and fists, and choked him until he fainted. Photos posted on social media by unknown people show Cura lying naked on the floor. A video shot on a mobile phone and showing two men from the waist down standing in a room records the sound of a person off camera whose voice Cura and his lawyers have identified as Cura’s groaning and crying out apparently while being abused.

Hacı Eray Tosun and Koray Tosun, brothers who run a café in Diyarbakır, allege that on June 13 police detained and beat them and two other men working with them after a dispute over police attempts to fine customers at the café for not wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. A photo of Eray Tosun supports his allegation that police knocked out three of his front teeth.

Human Rights Watch also documented a case in which community night watchmen ill-treated Cihat Duman and two other men in İstanbul. Duman, an İstanbul lawyer, said that on July 5, community night watchmen beat and handcuffed him, sprayed teargas into his face, and took him to the police station after he attempted to intervene to stop them beating two men in central İstanbul.

HRW pointed out that: “There has been a marked resurgence of police torture and ill-treatment in custody over the past five years and in particular since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Lack of condemnation from higher officials and a readiness to cover up allegations rather than investigate them has resulted in widespread impunity for security forces. There has been no justice for victims in cases of torture and other abuse documented by Human Rights Watch in recent years, and Turkey has a long and poor history of tolerating torture and invoking superficial denials and unconvincing explanations of how detainees have been seriously injured or died in custody.”

Turkey holds the dubious record of being the Council of Europe member state with the highest number of findings of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights against it, hundreds of which involve violations of the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, and failure to investigate those violations.

Turkish authorities have also failed to conduct effective investigations into cases documented by Human Rights Watch in a report published in 2017. There was an investigation in one case involving seven police officers for the torture in June 2017 of four men in police custody in Gevaş, Van province, that resulted in the prosecution of just one officer. He was initially acquitted, and later retried and in June 2020 convicted of “intentional injury through excessive use of force” and given a prison sentence of 150 days, converted to a fine of 3,000 liras (US$438) and suspended. After the suspension of the fine, the victims’ lawyers appealed against the verdict. Photos of the four victims during their torture in police custody had at the time of the incident been posted on social media.