Their fight against torture

Since Turkey has gone into a state of emergency, many human rights organizations have been shut down. A few are left still going strong in their work to end the use of torture and help those who have been exposed to it. But the job is not without a risk.

By Kalaisha K. Totty and Eskild Heinemeier

Those who are tortured in custody are usually blindfolded, handcuffed from behind and are then suspended. At that point anything can happen to them. Ümit Efe was held in custody for 91 days in 1981 in an Istanbul police center. She was tortured there. As translated by her colleague Dr. Ceren Aislan:

“I was blindfolded and suspended, electrocuted under my feet and hit. I was suspended, normally and upside down. They gave me electric shocks and I was bitten by dogs.”

“I stood strong through it because I believed in a better world. I still do.”
– Ümit Efe, board member of Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. (Photo: Kalaisha K. Totty)

There have been accounts of rape, sexual assault, abuse, and verbal threats as part of the torture methods used in prisons, where they occur the most, throughout Turkey.

In the last few years, many of Turkey’s organizations and associations handling torture have been closed by the state. While the avenues in which those who have experienced torture are sparse, there are still a few groups dedicated to picking up the slack and fighting for the right to not be tortured.

The Human Rights Association (İnsan Haklari Derneği) and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey are two entities that are on a mission to aid those who have suffered torture and are advocating for torture to seize.

“We are not just an organization,” says Dr. Aislan, who works for the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. “We are working to show the people that torture is happening in Turkey. We go to the places it is occurring and make documents on what the state and police are doing.”

The last castle for human rights
In an apartment building in Istanbul, the regional branch of the Human Rights Association has set up office in a small apartment–with a simple sign in the window, discretely indicating that these are their offices.

The Human Rights Association primarily works with documentation of torture and legal help. They interview the persons and document their experiences, and then help them send the case to court. But with recent developments in Turkey, the courts do not take the cases.

”We send our reports to the division of justice, but nothing happens,” says Doğan Ozkan, a member of the board at the Human Rights Association.

In the end, for the cases to have an impact, they need to go through international institutions and lead to political action.

“What we can do is this: we send the applications to the Human Rights Foundation to make reports and send it to court. Then we go to the human rights court, or we send the cases to United Nations. Then the rest is not our business. The rest is political. Political people must change the law, or must do something,” says Hüseyin Boğatekin, a lawyer who works at Human Rights Association.

Hüseyin Boğatekin is a lawyer and works for the Human Rights Association. Shortly before the interview, he attended a consultation with inmates who were undergoing a hunger strike in protest of the use of torture in prisons. (Photo: Kalaisha K. Totty)

Human Rights Association primarily works with persons who were tortured, but since many human rights organizations have been shut down, they have taken over a lot of responsibilities.

”Normally every human rights violation has its own organization and its own NGO. Now, because all the organizations are closed, you can say that Human rights Association is the last castle for human rights,” says Ozkan.


Physical, psychological and social help
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey provide medical, psychological and social help to sufferers of torture. It is under the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. Efe, who is also a representative of the board of the foundation, and her colleague Dr. Aislan explain the work and the tasks of the center.

For people exposed to torture the immediate need is often treatment of the physical damages such as swollen heads or noses or even fractures. For smaller cases the centre can manage it, but graver cases are sent to associated clinics. Usually, the hospitals are not a solution for the people exposed to torture.

”They are afraid to go to the hospitals. If they go there, they can be referred to the police,” says Dr. Aislan.

Dr. Ceren Aislan is a medical doctor and works at the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, where she aids people who have been tortured. (Photo: Kalaisha K. Totty)

But the scars of torture are not only physical. The psychological help is a big part of the work done by Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. Not only to the direct sufferer of torture, but also to their families.

Thirdly there is the social aspect. The foundation has social workers employed, who visit sufferers of torture in their homes, helping them readjust into society.

”Torture is a universal crime. Torture victims have to be treated by the state, but in Turkey the state is exactly who is practicing torture, so we as a foundation have overtaken this duty, and we have to be stronger.”

Documentation is important
Apart from the treatment of victims of torture, a very important part of the work for the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey is documentation and information. With weekly, monthly, and annual publications, the foundation tries to make the people aware of the issue. According to Efe this is the key to fighting the use of torture in Turkey.

”The most important thing is documentation. With documentation the torture can be brought to justice,” she says and continues:

”Our documentation is also scientific. We see people and we see what torture does to them, and we can document that it is torture that we are seeing. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation works with scientific documentation.”

The face of torture
Torture methods are always changing. Torture can be indirect.

There was a recent hunger strike in one prison. It had been going on for well over 60 days. Among the protesters was a teacher and a professor who were fired from their government jobs.

According to The Human Rights Association the protesters are not allowed to work and are then isolated from the society and their friends. They say this is a special way of torture in Turkey. Something that has also been emphasized in a recent report by Amnesty International.

Other methods are quite direct and violent.

Human Rights Association’s center in Urfa created an observational report of the conditions in the Urfa and Siverek prisons in August of 2016. They reported severe cases of torture taking place in custody. One of the female detainees was taken by police while on her way to visit her brother in prison. They took her to a prison in Siverek where they threatened her with rape. The officers shouted verbal insults as she was blindfolded and handcuffed. After they abused and sexually assaulted her, they took her to a hospital where the doctor asked if there was a sign of beating, in which the officers responded that there were none.

“In Turkey it is not easy to prove the torture because the doctors do not report the torture,” says Ozkan. “They say that torture is not happening. We cannot trust any support from Turkey, because the doctors are lying, the Turkish state is lying.”

Torture has developed into a systematic practice in Turkey. Efe says that during the 80’s torture took place in custody. After the 90’s it got more serious especially in eastern parts where Kurds are living. These people were under systematic torture.

It has gotten worse after the attempted coup d’état in July 2016, that led the Turkish government to declare a state of emergency.

Threatened to silence
Selahattin Olcuoju, also a Human Rights Association board member, claims that most people in Turkey do not care because those who have been tortured are afraid to speak on their experiences.

“Just a small minority cares about torture, but most people do not care, even if they have seen or have their own experiences,” Olcuoju says. “They say that even though we are tortured, we must remain silent.”

Those who are tortured are often threatened to not talk about what happened to them. Even in some instances they are threatened to be killed. Ozkan recounts applicant situations in which they witnessed someone being killed because they spoke about the torture. He says by them seeing it happen, they feel even more convinced to not say anything to avoid being killed themselves.

Dr. Aislan says that there are not many places for survivors to go. That even though they may think there are places for them to get help, the reality is that there is not.

Many do not know about the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, but they are learning. The foundation has received more work since a lot of organizations have closed down.

“It has not changed how we work. We have a name and we will do it until we can not go on,” Efe says.

The Istanbul protocol
In the last few years Turkey has had a bad record in regards to torture, says Professor Lami Bertan Tokuzlu of Istanbul Bilgi University Law School. He has done research on human rights and torture in Turkey for years. According to Professor Tokuzlu, human rights was a priority during the European Union accession process.

“I was surprised to see that torture cases were being categorized as ‘Turkish cases’ in some human rights textbooks in foreign countries.”

In order to combat issues in regards to treating those who have been tortured, groups of specialists from doctors to human rights activists drafted the Istanbul Protocol. This document compiles a set of international guidelines for documenting torture, according to Physicians for Human Rights.

The United Nations has accepted this protocol and all medical personnel and people who are working on torture issues are educated with this protocol.

Professor Tokuzlu explains that the protocol, for him, symbolizes Turkey’s determination to change their attitude toward torture. However in the last years the support for human rights have not been as effective.

State of emergency
Turkey has been in a state of emergency since July 2016. According to state of emergency procedures, the state can partially or fully suspend many of the rights in the constitution. Professor Tokuzlu points out that freedom from torture is an exceptional right and cannot be restricted even in a state of emergency.

“It is an absolute right. However since all of the legal surrounding has changed, the support mechanisms and transparency mechanisms are weaker at the moment,” Tokuzlu says.

He explains that before the state of emergency he could easily obtain access to visit deportation centers, but now he cannot gain access to supervise and write reports on what is happening there.

“Of course this undermines the control mechanisms,” Tokuzlu adds.

Professor Tokuzlu explains many judges were dismissed as part of the state of emergency with accusations of supporting the organization behind the attempted coup, and it is not possible to bring cases because those measures of torture were introduced through emergency decrees and they are not subject to judicial review.

“If the judiciary cannot operate properly then it is difficult to secure such rights,” Tokuzlu says.

Media attention and public knowledge
Professor Tokuzlu says that the media does not report on the publications about torture or the torture allegations today.

“If you go through and make a survey, you will see that torture in general is not in the agenda of turkish media,” Tokuzlu says.

Without the media giving attention, the population will not be informed of the human rights violations. And without public knowledge, no public support to pursue the the problems.

Hüseyin Boğatekin from Human Rights Association says that the organization’s voice is not enough to make a difference. The rest of the world needs to hear their voice, and that their involvement in saying torture is happening in Turkey is crucial.

*Our infographic below is interactive, click the chart and hover your mouse over each piece of the chart.

Overcoming fear
With the shutdown of many organizations, and imprisonment of academics, teachers, judges, police officers, public servants and more, many do not feel safe doing work that could be seen as undermining the government.

Dr. Aislan tells of a medical doctor associated with The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey whom treated patients in the town Cizra in the south eastern part of Turkey where an armed conflict took place. He was imprisoned on account of assisting terrorists, because the patients he treated were believed to fight against the government troops. Though he was later released, the incident tells of the risk associated with the work they are doing.

So since it is obvious that the work these organizations do is not without a risk, what motivates them to continue their work?

Dr. Aislan says:

“I am a medical doctor. I want to help people and as a doctor I can make a close relationship. And in Turkey you have to do something. I’m not so young anymore, so I cannot fight against police,” she laughs, “but I can help people who are confronting the state.”

Efe, who experienced torture on her own body, says about her motivation:

“After the torture I was imprisoned for five years. I stood strong through it because I believed in a better world. I still do.”

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey is under observation by the government. But when asked if they are afraid to do their job, Dr. Aislan and Efe both say no–and laugh.

“We are waiting. They can come any day. We have to resist, we have to not accept this anti-democratic situation,” says Dr. Aislan.

In the Human Rights Association, they are worried as well. But it does not stop them from doing their work, says Doğan Ozkan.

“We are afraid. But being afraid is useless, so we work for human rights. Working for human rights is an overcoming of our own fear.”

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This is our project on the organizations fighting torture in Istanbul, Turkey during their state of emergency in 2017.